“A royal visit is like a swan on a lake,” a footman opines. “Beauty and grace above, demented kicking below.” And this, more or less, is what we are treated to for two hours by Julian Fellowes and his film revival of Downton Abbey, which has returned four years after its series finale. The PBS (in the U.S.) juggernaut is now an Avengers-level film event for Anglophiles, as the entire original cast (or at least, those who were still part of the show in the final season) have returned to tell one more tale from the stately Yorkshire manor. This time, the King and Queen are coming for a visit, which is a perfect capsule tale that allows fan-favorites upstairs and down to put on a show.
The Downton Abbey movie saves time by not having to introduce its myriad characters, but even for those who can’t remember exactly how things ended (or may not remember much about it at all), there is a Merchant Ivory familiarity to the setting and the players that puts one at ease immediately. The series’ soapiness was always masked, in part, by outstanding costuming, sharp acting and a sweeping score, and these same elements come into play once more to save the movie’s script from being too familiar. There’s an early scene, in fact, where Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) trade bon mots that end with small barbs about the other being a bastion of clichés. But the joke, to some degree, is that it doesn’t matter—we are endlessly entertained by them, regardless.
The same can be said of the film, which is never surprising and yet immensely satisfying. We’re introduced to several new characters whose arcs throughout the movie can be guessed during their first appearance onscreen. And yet because of the production’s light, witty and fully immersive aesthetic, all of it remains a delight (even one very silly attempt at an action sequence).
The film picks up in 1927, and finds the exceedingly charming cast almost exactly as we left them. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is running the show, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is still (quietly) an Irish republican, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is very much Edith, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is handling everything, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is the perfect mix of cleverness and compassionate, Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) never miss a beat with their patter, and Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is exceptional comic relief. But there is a whiff of revolution in the air, as the royal visit stirs up some budding anti-monarchist feelings among the staff, and even those upstairs are straining against the societal restraints placed upon them.
Fellowes has never been a subtle writer, and as such his desire to push modernity onto life at Downton is nearly overwhelming. It works, though, far better than his balancing of these desires for freedom and the estate’s place in a changing world with a nostalgia for the days of great houses staffing exceptional amounts of servants, or breathlessly deferential “the crown above all” monologues. Mrs. Hughes mentioning off-handedly to Carson (Jim Carter) that the royal visit has “Daisy singing the Marseille” is Downton at its best. But when the incredibly wealthy Edith (who now outranks everyone else in her family) laments to her kind husband about her perfect life because she is bored by endless dinners and balls (or Mary complains that losing servants is becoming a “struggle”—oh the humanity!), it’s Downton at its most privileged indulgence.
There’s even an ode to the estate improbably delivered by Anna on how it serves as a beacon for the entire county, essentially functioning as the center of everyone’s life, and thus it must remain forever. It feels a little cringey as a speech propping up institutionalized classism, and yet, the opening shot that comes up over the hill to reveal the Abbey in all of its sun-soaked glory to a sweeping orchestral crescendo will nearly bring a tear to one’s eye. So maybe, indeed, Fellowes is onto something. (As Lady Mary declares when the rain lets up before the royal parade, “it has been proved conclusively that God is a monarchist!” Who are we to argue?)
Basically when it comes to the Downton movie, as Barrow (Robert James-Collier) states early on: “You can like it or lump it,” and that about sums it up. There are some incredibly funny sequences, a few genuinely heartwarming ones, and so many plots it will nearly make your head spin. But that’s the Downton we know and love, and seeing so many familiar faces and dynamics is like visiting old friends for one more jolly reunion; you will smile throughout the whole thing. Downton has always been an ideal, and the movie plays into that with joyous and wonderfully clever verbal exchanges (plus some costuming to die for). And though the series ended in a fully satisfying way, the movie provides yet another perfect finale—while leaving the door open for more stories. “One hundred years from now Downton will still be here, and so will the Crawleys,” Carson says matter-of-factly to Ms. Hughes as they stroll out the front of manor into the evening, another mark of changing times. And we want to watch as much of it as we can. Long live Downton Abbey.
The Downton Abbey movie premieres in theaters Friday, September 20th.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV.