The ”Downton Abbey ” movie isn’t exactly a movie. It’s more like another season of the popular “Masterpiece Classic” show that’s been condensed to 90 minutes instead of 8 hours.
Written by series creator Julian Fellowes, almost every character who made it out of the six season run alive is back for their big screen debut with their own little arc and some lavish costume changes. But Michael Engler’s direction doesn’t bring any cinematic grandeur to this continuing story of a family and their servants. And Fellowes’ script has the impossible task of giving every character their own mini plot, as if focusing in on one or a few would have had fans of the other members of the very large ensemble up in arms. Together it makes “Downton Abbey” the movie a fairly shallow experience: All set dressing and nostalgia and some delicious Dowager Countess one-liners.
For “Downton” devotees, the crumbs might be enough. For anyone else just dropping in, however, “Downton Abbey” doesn’t exactly stand on its own.
The tidy reason for this big reunion is that King George V and Queen Mary have decided to spend a night at Downton Abbey as part of a royal tour. It’s 1927 and the aristocratic class is continuing to question their place in a modernizing Britain, but there are just enough of the old traditions left that the news of this royal visit sends the estate into a tizzy. When the royal entourage descends, the downstairs staff is horrified to learn that they’ll be sitting on the sidelines for the visit. The royals travel with cooks, footmen, butlers, valets and dressers and this group is especially dismissive of the provincial Downton employees.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) even decides to enlist the help of their retired Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carson), when she feels like his successor Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn’t equipped to handle this high profile occasion. It’s one of many constructions that will leave you wondering whether fan service has gotten in the way of believable storytelling. Yes, it brings Carson back to Downton and allows Thomas to go off on his own adventure in town, but it’s hard to deny that this is one overstuffed movie.
Consider just some of the subplots floating around: Daisy (Sophie McShera) gets to question her engagement; The long-widowered Branson (Allen Leech) gets a possible love interest and anarchy subplot; Anna (Joanne Froggatt) solves a mystery; The Dowager debates inheritance with her cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton); Poor Edith (Laura Carmichael) gets some good and bad news (can’t let her be too happy!); And Lady Mary, well, she gets a hand in most things, except her own relationship since her husband Henry (Matthew Goode) is absent for most of the film. The only ones who don’t have all that much going on are the Granthams themselves, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Robert (Hugh Bonneville).
That’s not to say that there aren’t good moments. There are, in fact, many, especially for those who miss the voyeurism of the fancy dress evenings with the family and their helpers. As in the series, the Dowager is always a standout and at 84, Maggie Smith is as fierce and fiery as ever in bringing her to life. And it is always lovely spending time in such lush surroundings. But the movie could have benefited on a little focus and not so much fan service, especially considering how good all of the ensemble actors are in these roles. Perhaps that’s why Fellowes couldn’t choose just one.
Besides, if the camera movements and swelling music cues are any indication, there is only real star anyway: Downton Abbey itself.
“Downton Abbey,” a Focus Features release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language.” Running time: 90 minutes. Two stars out of four.