Nothing really new here. If you liked/loved the series on TV, you’ll like/love the movie. It’s just a little bigger, a little more grand, a little more lush, and has perhaps one or two too many subplots. To give enough breathing room for all the secondary stories, the film would have to be at least a half hour longer, but the ability of its likely (older) patrons aren’t used to sitting that long—hence the two-hour running time.
The plot itself has been signaled well enough in the trailers (the King and Queen are coming!!), but creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has a nifty twist prepared to keep things from becoming too predictable. What is predictable, and by predictable here I mean comforting and familiar, are all the characters, their personalities, their interrelationships, and of course the place and time. The well-appointed rooms, the gorgeous costumes, the elegant and moving music—they’re all there. Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is logistical—getting all those actors together long enough to get this film recorded. My guess is that it will never happen again.
And perhaps the near-zero chance of making this happen again is the reason Fellowes felt he had to tie up so many stories; he may well have felt that there was no way many of the stories he started would ever be able to be developed beyond these two hours, and so they had to be presented with some kind of closure or a promise thereof.
All these actors are solid. But a few performances are worthy of note. Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), featured so prominently in the past, is practically invisible here, and she is missed. The happy opposite is the case with Tom (Allen Leech) and of course the indomitable Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Leech’s romantic subplot is rushed and unfulfilling, but he has some lovely moments remembering his wife and explaining how he looks at things now. Smith, whom I admire as both a line reader and actor (see https://film-prof.com/2013/04/15/actors-and-line-readers/), gets her chance to do the former (of course), but also has the chance to show her skills as a serious actor near the end of the film. Perhaps only Smith could have been called upon to wrap things up in such a believable and moving way.
The film’s major misstep (and it’s a significant one) is in handling Mr. Molesly (Kevin Doyle). Doyle was a surprise comic addition to the television show, and his comedy worked best in unexpected small moments. Here he is directed to go over the top from the word go, as if his drunken dance routine highlighted in the TV show were extended to an overly energetic performance throughout the entire film. It doesn’t work, and it makes his final exchange with Miss Baxter feel less authentic than it is written to be.
Some films are nearly critic-proof, and Downton Abbey might be accused of being immune to serious criticism. But not just matching but transcending a well-crafted television series can’t be taken for granted. There were many places where the story could have been overdone or underdone, or a performance might have fallen short, or an approach might have proven to be foolhardy, or the writer or director could have risked taking things in a “daring” new direction. Other than Doyle’s misconceived interpretation, none of these things is true of Downton Abbey. Yes, it’s as comfortable and generally unsurprising, but translating any television show to the big screen successfully, especially with a television director (Michael Engler) at the helm, is no small feat. For those who are looking to keep a show faithful to its TV series while expanding it for the big screen, Downton Abbey may well find itself a future model of how to do it right.