No one who is a Downton Abbey fan should care what a newcomer thinks about the movie. But what about other newcomers, who may go to the film out of curiosity or because a fan is dragging them to it? This review may help you. As someone who gave up watching television series years ago, I've never seen a single episode of Downton Abbey. My sole exposure to it – aside from hearing friends and family rave – was watching this official recap video prior to screening the film. It did a great job of bringing me mostly up to speed on everything.
The center of the story is a pending visit from the king and queen. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are excited. The staff is even more excited. Then they find out that the royal couple is bringing their own staff, meaning the employees of Downton Abbey will not get to serve them. Even if you don't know the history of all the characters, that scenario is easy enough to get the gist of. There's both humor and drama in how it plays out, as the butlers, maids, and cooks react to being replaced.
Circling around that central idea are a bunch of subplots. Family matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) is forced to reunite with a relative, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), with whom she has fallen out in a dispute over an inheritance. Former butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is brought back to take over for Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), a fact Barrow deeply resents. Footman Andy Parker (Michael Fox) becomes jealous when girlfriend/assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera) seems to attract the notice of a handsome plumber who has come to fix the pipes. Those are just a few examples. Again, all of these individuals have extensive histories, but getting a grasp on the essentials of their situations isn't too difficult. The events that occur are generally straightforward enough to make sense to a newbie.
There are about a hundred different things going on, which means Downton Abbey can't devote an excess of time to any of them. The movie flits from one to the next pretty rapidly, trying to give as many of the characters a big moment as possible. Nevertheless, most of the various story arcs are compelling. Possessing a detailed knowledge of this fictional world doubtlessly makes the film a more rewarding experience. It isn't vital, though, because the uniformly good performances from the ensemble cast keep you hooked. Besides, this is more or less a soap opera anyway, so the manner in which it breezes through the various developments feels appropriate. If anything, not being massively in-depth just makes it easier for the unacquainted to follow along.
The real shocker is how funny Downton Abbey is. Violet is a master of the stinging remark. She gets a laugh practically every time she opens her mouth. The movie also has one truly hilarious scene involving an overeager staff member. Julien Fellowes – the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Robert Altman's Gosford Park – has put together a sharp script, filled with witty dialogue that prevents the movie from seeming stuffy or hoity-toity.
All in all, viewers who absorbed the TV show will find richness in Downton Abbey that new viewers won't. However, the movie is thankfully not nearly as esoteric as it might have been. You can come to it cold (or relatively cold) and enjoy the humor, the acting, and the look at how life is different for the workers downstairs than it is for the elite upstairs.
See the film and you'll understand what everyone's been raving about.
out of four
Downton Abbey is rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.