Release Date(s)2019 (December 17, 2019)
Studio(s)Perfect World Pictures/Carnival Films/Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
There’s an advantage to making a film like Downton Abbey. Its target audience, having watched six seasons of the show of the same name on PBS, already know the many characters and their history. All the major family and servant roles are played by the original actors from the TV series. Audience members unfamiliar with the series will be caught up in the pomp and lush production design even if they feel a bit lost with the multitude of characters navigating a momentous event at the Yorkshire estate.
The film picks up in 1927, shortly after the series ended, and continues the story of the Crawley family, this time with a royal visit in the offing. King George V (Simon James) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be stopping at Downton as part of their tour of the British provinces. Both the family and the staff are all aflutter with preparations to impress Their Majesties. The staff, in particular, are eager to shine in the presence of the monarchs and do the family proud.
Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), have given over management of the estate to their eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Having reason to fear that the new butler, Barrow (Robert James-Collier), is not up to the task of readying the household in time, Lady Mary pays a call on retired butler Carson (Jim Carter) and asks him to return to Downton temporarily to add his impeccable touch for decorum.
Unfortunately, the staff learns that the royals will be traveling with their own entourage of butler, housekeeper, footmen, ladies maid, chef, and kitchen staff and Downton’s staff will merely be asked to remain downstairs, out of the way. Upset at being marginalized, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and the other servants set a plan in motion to assure that the Downton staff will get to serve the King and Queen.
There are many interweaving sub-plots. Widowered Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is attracted to a visitor to Downton and encounters a stranger who may not be what he appears. Barrow—not needed at Downton with Carson back on staff—finds an adventure in town. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) flirts with a furnace repairman. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) gets both good and bad news. The family’s cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), joins the festivities under clouded circumstances. Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) invites the Crawley women to tea. Lady Mary worries about the future of Downton and whether it can be sustained. True to form, Lady Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) punctuates her observations with cutting one-liners.
Written by Julian Fellowes, the big screen version shows off its expanded budget with some amazingly staged set pieces. The town stages a parade to honor the royal couple, complete with uniformed soldiers on horseback, hundreds of onlookers, and the King himself on horseback addressing the troops. The state dinner features the Crawleys, the King and Queen, and invited guests dressed in their finest finery, as numerous servants hover, waiting to serve. And a final royal ball ties the plot threads together as couples swirl to waltzes played by a large orchestra.
What we remember best about the TV series is present in the film version—costumes, lavish interiors, the manners of a bygone era, exquisite detail, and outstanding performances. Once again, Maggie Smith steals every scene she’s in, either with a snippy comment, a sidelong glance, or a well-placed retort. Lady Violet is especially on her game with her regular sparring partner, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton). The cast overall is excellent and fit their roles perfectly. The one exception is Philippe Spall, who plays the King’s personal chef, Monsieur Courbet, as over-the-top cartoonish. His performance is jarring, particularly when compared to the reserved, often underplayed, performances of the Downton regulars.
Michael Engler, who directed four episodes of the TV show, is right at home with the big-screen version. He manages to deal with multiple story lines simultaneously while making the royal visit the main narrative from which individual subplots emanate. The characters are much as you remember them. A lovely conversation between Violet and Mary addresses changing times, the value of tradition, and what the future of Downton might hold.
Rated PG, Downton Abbey is not a film geared to hit you with shocking developments, but one that presents and resolves issues—some large, others small—in a way that is entirely satisfactory. It offers intrigue, romance, disappointment, surprise, and revelation, all couched in an aura of nostalgia—both for early 20th century British mores and for a program that made the ups and downs of an aristocratic family riveting.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the widescreen format of 2.39:1. Interiors tend to be dark and heavily shadowed in the downstairs scenes and somewhat brighter for upstairs sequences. Production design is opulent, particularly in the two big set pieces—the king addressing his troops and the ballroom scene. Director Michael Engler uses the montage approach to open the film. An announcement of a royal visit to Downton is sent to the Crawleys and traced through the various stages of its journey until it is delivered. This gives us the first view of Downton Abbey as the majestic series theme music plays. A nighttime outdoor sequence in a downpour gives off a bluish hue and backlighting silhouettes Lady Mary. The biggest scene from a logistical perspective is the king addressing the troops. With scores of mounted soldiers, horses, a reviewing stand, many major cast members, and scores of extras in period dress, it’s the kind of scene that is made for the big screen. The King in his red military uniform with red and white plumed headgear stands out against an expense of vibrant green, manicured grass on a clear, sunlit day. Costumes for the ballroom sequence are particularly resplendent. Lady Mary wears a silver and black beaded gown and Lady Edith wears gold. Costume designer Anna Robbins created all dresses for the principal actors expressly for this sequence.
There are two soundtrack options: English 7.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio and English 2.0 DVS Dolby Digital. Spanish and French tracks in 5.1 DTS Digital Surround are also available. Subtitles include Spanish, French, and English for the hearing impaired. Dialogue is crisp and easy to understand throughout. Orchestral music during the ballroom scene is nicely balanced with dialogue. John Lunn’s score swells for exterior views of Downton and is used sparingly otherwise. Sound is at its most glorious during the ballroom scenes. A full on-screen orchestra plays waltzes as the elegant guests swirl around the grand dance floor.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include an audio commentary with director Michael Engler, deleted scenes, conversations with cast members, 4 behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a TV series recap. A Digital code is included on a paper insert in the package.
Audio Commentary – Director Michael Engler wanted to reacquaint the audience with what they loved in the show while creating anticipation for what is new. He wanted the famous Downton theme music to coincide exactly with the first appearance of Downton itself. Engler discusses the professionalism of the cast, noting that they are all great actors who got along beautifully. As to the plot, since few people had ever seen the king and queen, the servants were thrilled to not only see them but have the honor of serving them. In Ireland at the time, there was a movement toward independence and Tom Branson would have been checked on by security before the king’s visit. Fellowes’ artistry is weaving the many stories together. The royal troops were “an incredible gift.” It took an entire day to set up a camp for the soldiers and horses. After a brief rehearsal, the troops “hit it perfectly” the first time. Much at Downton is predicated on how people should look and behave according to their proper station, though some might not want to live by that restriction. The costume designers are always aware of how clothes will work in their surroundings. For the ballroom scene, every actor had a special costume. Because the scene between Lady Mary and Violet is lengthy and emotional, Engler wanted to shoot it simply, without moving lights and cameras. The ballroom scene lets the viewer predict how characters will be in the future. A wooden floor was laid over the actual marble floor in the same pattern as the marble. For this scene, the actors spent a few days with a choreographer. It was important to end the movie at Downton, with Carson stating that Downton and the Crawleys will go on forever and Mrs. Carson responding with “We’ll see, Charlie, we’ll see.”
Upstairs & Downstairs Cast Conversations – Sitting in a semi-circle, key cast members discuss their thoughts on reuniting for the feature film. Upstairs: Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, and Hugh Bonneville discuss their roles and feelings about returning to their characters after three years. Downstairs: Jim Carter, Joanne Froggatt, Michael C. Fox, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, and Robert James Collier discuss their roles. Imelda Staunton, who played the upstairs character Maud Bagshaw and was a newcomer to the cast, joins the discussion.
The Royal Visit – The main story is based on actual tours by the royals during the 1920s. The visit excites everyone at Downton. The estate has to be made worthy for the royal visit. Writer/creator Julian Fellowes notes that “Everyone is at the top of his game.” He comments that the parade was a “massive spectacle to stage.”
True to the Twenties – The film is set in 1927. The feudal structure is ending. Props had to feel historically correct. Costumes and locations reflect the period.
Welcome to Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England is Downton Abbey. Michelle Dockery speaks of how emotional it was coming back to the location. Many shots of the huge estate were filmed with drones to provide spectacular views. Set pieces, such as the king addressing the troops and the ballroom scene, were geared to “raise the bar.” Director Michael Engler comments that “everything was scaled up, cinematically.”
The Brilliance of Julian Fellowes – Writer/creator/producer Fellowes wanted the film to be an extension of the TV series, so the story had to involve the entire cast of characters. The script had a great deal of content, with many individual stories interwoven. He notes that “every life has its hurdles that must be overcome. Most people are trying to do their best.”
Deleted Scenes – A series of scenes are presented without specific reference.
Downton Abbey Series Recap – Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Jim Carter (Carson) provide a synopsis of events that occurred from Season 1 through Season 6. Film clip highlights are shown along with Carter and Logan’s narration.
– Dennis Seuling