Jim Carter in Downton Abbey (Photo: Focus Features)
(SUMMER MOVIE WRAP 2019: Best Film, Biggest Disappointment, Top Moneymakers, Worst Remake, and more! For a look at the highlights and low points of the cinema season, go here.)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Michael Engler
STARS Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith
Say this about the 21st-century spate of TV-to-film adaptations, whether they be good (Sex and the City), bad (Entourage), or ugly (Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie): They’re very user-friendly, allowing newbies to join the party without having to prepare much beforehand.
Regardless of the source (a book, a play, a TV series, an emoji), a motion picture needs to stand on its own, and like these previous boob-tube transfers, Downton Abbey succeeds in this capacity. Spoiler: I’ve never watched a single episode of the popular series that ran from 2010 to 2015, although I of course knew of its premise and even some of its characters. Subsequent spoiler: It didn’t matter, as the movie immediately establishes its players before proceeding with the business at hand.
In this case, that business would be an imminent visit from the British royals — specifically, King George V (Simon Jones), Queen Mary (Geraldine James), and Princess Mary (Kate Phillips). The occupants of Downton Abbey, among them Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), anticipate their regal guests with the requisite stiff upper lips, while the staff, including returning head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and head maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), begin making preparations.
Subplots abound. The staff is furious that their roles are being usurped by the King’s personal handlers and plot to regain control of their own household. Affable Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the former chauffeur who married into the family, attempts to move on from his widowed status by falling for a maid (Tuppence Middleton) who has a surprising secret up her sleeve. Given the night off, butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) ends up at a hidden club that’s men-only. As for Violet, she ends up arguing with almost everyone around her (or, as she notes, “I never argue; I explain.”).
After a typically hyperactive summer season, Downton Abbey will prove to be just the soothing nightcap sought by many moviegoers eager for something that’s all talk and no action. (In the world of this movie, an action scene is when someone hits a hot-water pipe with a shovel.) It’s a gentle picture about genteel people, as witty and warm as one might hope. And if a virginal viewer like me can respond positively to its pull, I can only imagine the rapturous experience awaiting those who have been Downton devotees since Day One.