On Sept. 20, the big-screen version of Downton Abbey, a massive hit for PBS' Masterpiece, hits theaters -- and the reviews are rolling in.
Written by Catholic Julian Fellowes, the series traced the ups and downs of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants as they negotiated the early years of the 20th Century, including World War I. Now, it's 1927 -- 15 years after the story began with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic -- and the King and Queen are coming to stately Downton Abbey, with all the pomp, circumstance and chaos that entails.
But first, NBC and Focus Features are offering an inside look at the movie, called Return to Downton Abbey: A Grand Event, airing on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, the day before the film comes out.
Dancing With the Stars pro Derek Hough is host, talking to the cast. Filmed at Highclere Castle in Englans -- the real-life model for Downton Abbey -- the special also features celebrities offering their Downton obsessions. Might want to break out the high tea for watching this one.
Talky and plot heavy, Downton Abbey was not geared at all to younger children (and the series did deal with, albeit generally tastefully, adult sexual themes), but it did grab the attention of families from teens through seniors. I don't expect the movie -- which is rated PG -- to depart far from that (with one proviso, noted in the last review excerpt below).
Here's a taste of what critics are saying (if you want to remain unspoiled, I recommend not reading past these excerpts. All these reviews are fairly plot-heavy):
Thanks to an infusion of financing, not unlike the way Cora's dowry saved the family fortunes way back when, Downton 2.0 is literally bigger, broader, more gem-encrusted, punctuated with more drone shots and monarchist pomp, and has all the major castmembers back in place. Even those who made grumbling noises in the press about having had enough (*cough* Maggie Smith *cough*) when the sixth and supposedly final season wrapped have sucked it up and donned the corsets and waistcoats. Sadly, Dan Stevens' much loved character Matthew Crawley, despite internet rumors, is still dead (although I for one am holding out hope there will be a Downton-Legion crossover someday).
That mashup may be many years off yet, but don't be surprised if there are more films to come, especially since this satisfyingly dense deep dive into Downton-land is clearly getting the infrastructure ready to keep the story going. Sure, a few of the series' regulars probably won't come back, but without spoiling anything we can reveal that the last scenes are all about the old passing on the house keys of power to a younger generation.
A film based on a show as beloved as “Downton Abbey” would have to do a lot wrong to alienate its core fans. While this attempt cannot juggle all its characters and isn’t nimble enough to find a new way to make its story work, this feature does not err quite that much. It’s reminiscent in this way of the 2008 film “Sex and the City,” which was strangely, lumpily paced and told a basically unnecessary story, but which was still true enough to its characters that it was embraced by fans. Those who love the Crawleys will find things to love here, from Mary’s insouciance, unchanged by the years, to the pleasant coziness of moments in the village surrounding Downton Abbey. But for some viewers who watched the show with an increasing sense of its fundamental coolness towards the idea of progress, its creepy-Crawley sense that to hope for or work for a more equitable world was not to know one’s role, this journey to the past may end up feeling ultimately less nostalgic than backward-looking.
The sense that the Crawleys’ charmed world was on its way out became more prominent through the series. Despite some half-hearted nods toward a more egalitarian future, though, Downton the movie is more intent than ever in glorifying ‘the old days’. Yes, there are big hearts all around. But mostly it’s glamour, manners and wealth.
In the opening scene of the Downton Abbey movie, a letter makes its way from a desk in central London to a country house in Yorkshire. For moviegoers who watched the TV show—which will surely be every single one of them—this journey may seem familiar. After all, back in 2010, the series’ very first episode began with another communiqué reaching Downton, on that occasion a telegram informing the Earl of Grantham that his heir, who also happened to be his daughter Mary’s fiancé, had perished on the Titanic. It took six seasons to resolve the legal and romantic challenges that bit of Morse code set in motion—and by the end of the 52nd episode, creator Julian Fellowes’ limited repertoire of dramatic tics and tricks had been repeated so frequently that even I, who thought my appetite for posh people’s problems was unquenchable, was sick of the sight of that famous estate.
But something wonderful happened in the translation from multipart TV series to two-hour movie. Just take that opening sequence. The letter’s journey northward is dramatic, efficient, and suspenseful—three adjectives that were rarely used to describe the final seasons of the TV show. And its contents are refreshingly upbeat: The king and queen are visiting Yorkshire and plan to stay overnight at Downton. Arranging a royal visit might be stressful, but it is also exciting, and the long list of items on everyone’s to-do list will keep masters and servants alike too busy to ponder the sustainability of their way of life. (Though gloomy Lady Mary still finds a way to do so.)
And, from the Guardian UK, a reminder that this is a feature film, not a TV series, so a plot element that was more restrained for the small screen gets a bigger treatment in the movie. Parents, take note:
Exasperatingly, many of the plotlines – the central royal drama and the confrontation between Lady Grantham and Lady Bagshaw – are accelerated and resolved with almost surreal speed. But one which is emphasised is a new development in the life of the Downton franchise’s gay character, Barrow, the footman-turned-butler played by Robert James-Collier, whose sexuality is acknowledged and even celebrated. However, I do have to point out that his new trance of love means that he simply isn’t very good at his job and Mr Carson has to be brought out of retirement for butlering duties on the night of royal specialness. Meanwhile, Barrow disports himself at the kind of secret establishment which Mr Fellowes imagines existing in Yorkshire in the 1920s.
If you'd like to know how an actual British aristocratic family keeps the ancestral pile in the black in the 21st Century, Netflix has a one-hour special called Secrets of Althorp: The Spencers, which follows the late Princess Diana's brother Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, as he works to keep viable the home his clan has occupied for 500 years. Click here for that.
Or, you can always rewatch the Downton Abbey movie trailer ...
Image: Courtesy NBC
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.