Into our disheveled modern world, run by politically, morally and sartorially sloppy leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, the feature film version of “Downton Abbey” arrives just in time to tidy up. All brand names and franchises lean into the concept of fan service; this one leans so far it falls forward onto a fainting couch. It’s not a movie, really. It’s a commemorative “Downton Abbey” throw pillow.
It’ll no doubt placate millions of fans of creator Julian Fellowes’ global TV smash, which preoccupied much of our own United States in its six PBS seasons from 2011 to 2016. Screenwriter Fellowes keeps things in moderate-to-medium bustle, circling an extremely simple idea. King George V and Queen Mary are coming to Yorkshire (the time is 1927, just after the series’ narrative timeline): They’ve invited themselves, along with an invading army of butlers and cooks, to stay at the pleasantly expansive manse of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, who gets weirdly little to do) and his Yankee wife, Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern, same).
What else happens? There is a lot, yet it feels like a little. Downton’s retired butler Carson (Jim Carter, he of the gorgeous stentorian voice) swings back into service, gratefully, while Barrow (Robert James-Collier), onetime footman promoted to butler, is introduced into Yorkshire’s gay underground. The depiction is sympathetic, though it will strike some as slightly ahistorical.
Attempted political assassination shares the story with a halfhearted mystery angle (who’s stealing all the silver and jewelry?). A new character, Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), matches wits with her estranged dowager cousin, the resident Pez zinger dispenser Lady Violet (Maggie Smith). Meanwhile, the servants are revolting, discreetly. Sidelined by the insufferable royal crew charged with preparing and serving meals and waiting on the king and queen, the Downton staff wages a stealth rebellion. Anything so that Downton Abbey, and “Downton Abbey,” can have the satisfaction of a job done well.
Well enough, let’s say. The film lacks a gratifying middle. It’s all royalty preparation porn (close-ups of silverware, gleaming, while the camera swoops and glides) on the front end. On the back end, there’s entirely too much “job well done!” self-congratulation and farewells, plus curtain calls, and epilogues, and ballroom dancing exit dialogue and subplot wrap-up, plus additional epilogues. The chief payoff with the film version is indicated early when Countess Cora hears of the royal visit and says: “We will never stop changing our clothes.”
The hats are especially lovely, and Michelle Dockery, here blanded down by her material but still one of the bright lights of the ensemble, takes top honors as both actress and clotheshorse. Director Engler has several “Downton Abbey” TV episodes to his credit, along with scads of other series work, including “Sex and the City.” The “Sex and the City” film versions (one not bad, the other not good) were similarly committed to the notion of servicing presold lovers of the TV show. I’d say “Downton Abbey” falls about halfway in quality between the first and second “Sex and the City” movies. The cinematography by Ben Smithard is oddly flat, and the compositions rarely take effective advantage of the wider canvas. The rhythms of the film are no different from the neatly diced segments of the hourlong TV episodes, and they’re punctuated by musical swells and cappers precisely as they were on the small screen. After a while, you begin inserting your own commercials, mentally.