They give regular tours and hold all kinds of celebrations and special events at Highclere Castle, the real-life estate some 90 miles west of London that served as the primary home base for the acclaimed and globally popular TV show “Downton Abbey,” which enthralled millions over its six-season run from 2011-2016.
A few years after all those memorable early 20th century British period-piece characters took their curtain call (or so we thought) in an audience-pleasing, unabashedly sentimental series finale, now arrives the “Downton Abbey” movie, which is the cinematic equivalent of taking a trip to Highclere Castle for old times’ sake and taking one last look around.
It’s an extravagant dessert after a six-course meal. Absolutely unnecessary, but still a real treat.
Directed by Michael Engler (who helmed a handful of “Downton” episodes, including the finale) in a style perfectly in sync with the look of the TV show, and written by series creator Julian Fellowes, the “Downton Abbey” movie is set in 1927, about a year and a half after the events of the series farewell.
On the surface, this seems to be a relatively drama-free period for both the “upstairs” clan — including Hugh Bonneville’s Robert Crawley, aka Lord Grantham, and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern); Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary and of course the Dowager Countess herself (Maggie Smith) — as well as downstairs mainstays such as Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier), Anna and John Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle), the plucky Daisy (Sophie McShera) and the always-fretting cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol).
But when Lord Grantham and Cora receive a letter announcing the king and queen (Simon Jones and Geraldine James) will be spending a night at Downton Abbey during a tour of Yorkshire, it creates a ripple effect and serves as the launching point for a dizzying array of subplots — some organic and poignant, some forced and ludicrous.
Lady Mary is alarmed when it appears Barrow isn’t up to the task of supervising preparations for the royal visit, so she calls upon her beloved father figure Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to come out of retirement, don the tux one last time, and take charge as only Mr. Carson can take charge. (The tremors Mr. Carson had been experiencing — perhaps indicative of early onset of Parkinson’s Disease — that precipitated his retirement have vanished. No explanation.)
The royal advance team (butler, cook, footmen, et al.) arrives, and the Downton staffers are told their services won’t be needed during the visit, which leads to a farcical rebellion led by Anna Bates.
Meanwhile, the great Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is still in prime form when it comes to shooting verbal daggers, and (as usual) is deeply concerned about the family’s long-term financial future. She sees the royal visit as an opportunity to mend certain fences in the interest of securing an enormous inheritance for her son.
That’s just the start of it. We also get separate comedic story threads featuring the hapless Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and the bumbling former footman Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who, like Carson, returns to his old job for just one day because how else could they wedge these characters into the movie?
Regrettably, arguably the most irritating character in the history of the series is front and center for not just one but two major storylines. I speak of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the insufferably self-righteous Irish socialist and onetime chauffeur who married Lady Sybil after a scandalous affair — and eventually became the estate manager for Downton Abbey after Sybil’s death. Tom is still mouthing platitudes about English oppression, but come on Tom, you have like a dozen tuxedos in your closet and you’ve had a place at the upstairs table for years now. Give it a rest.
On the upside, it’s nice to see the onetime hiss-worthy villain Barrow continue to evolve into a better person, thanks in large part to him meeting a kindred spirit for the first time in his life. And how lovely it is to revisit a number of romantic couplings established in the TV show — some old, some new, some involving the .0001%, some involving the working class — and see the warmth and tenderness in their unions is stronger than ever.
For all its sophistication and pinpoint attention to detail, for all the wonderful performances from one of the great ensemble casts in television history, for all the sharp-tongued dialogue and gorgeous visuals, “Downton Abbey” embraced its soap opera core from the very start — complete with arbitrary deaths, lurid affairs, dramatic marriage proposals, devious criminal doings, multiple instances of elaborate cover-up efforts to hide the biological truth about a child, etc., etc.
Magnified to the big screen, some of the more implausible moments seem even more ridiculous.
But that also holds true for the highlights, from a genuinely moving conversation between the Dowager Countess and Lady Mary that reinforces their respective standings as perhaps the two most powerful, take-charge characters in the “Downton” canon, to the visual splendor of Downton Abbey aka Highclere Castle on the big screen.
What a lovely and welcome encore.