Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Downton Abbey’ movie: just what the fans ordered

Dan Webster

For "Downton Abbey" fans, the recent opening of the post-series movie was clearly a special event, as evidenced by the several moviegoers — women, mostly — who showed up for an advance screening dressed in costume. Following is the review of the movie that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Beginning in 2010, and continuing over the next six seasons, Public Television aired a series that achieved immense popularity. It was called “Downton Abbey.”

The show – created and written by British screenwriter Julian Fellowes – was something of a spinoff of “Gosford Park,” the 2001 Robert Altman feature film for which Fellowes won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

But while “Gosford Park” is more or less a mystery – in the sense that Altman made anything that fit into a particular genre – “Downton Abbey” was designed as something different. Though it had the same basic setup, an exploration of life in a British country estate as it unfolds both for the aristocrats who live there and the staff members who serve them, it set that life against the historical events that occurred between 1912 and 1926.

Events that included the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and Ireland’s ongoing struggle for independence.

And the collective groan that was heard on March 6th, 2016, when the last episode was aired in the U.S. was matched only by the cheers that greeted the announcement two years later that a movie version was in the works.

Now that movie, directed by Michael Engler from a Fellowes-written screenplay, has debuted. And it’s breaking box-office records for its Distributor, Focus Features, in addition to out-earning the two other main releases it opened against, James Gray’s “Ad Astra” and “Rambo: Last Blood.” 

All the chief characters from the series have returned, headed by Robert Crawley (the Earl of Grantham, who is played by Hugh Bonneville) and his American-born wife Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern). Other notable figures include the Earl’s daughter Lady Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery), the Earl’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith) and her main foil Lady Merton (played by Penelope Wilton).

As for the staff, the house butler Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter) is called back into service, while the others – particularly the butler Carson ends up replacing, Barrow (played by Robert James-Collier) – have their own intrigues to play out.

All this is set in motion by the main plotline, which involves a surprise visit by King George the Fifth and Queen Mary – an event that puts everyone on edge and adds every conceivable melodramatic touch to the mix, from a disagreement over inheritance to an attempted assassination.

It’s not as if “Downton Abbey” explores original territory. Between 1967 and ’69, the BBC ran a 26-part serial of John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” novels (with a reprise in 2002). And between 1971 and ’75, fans couldn’t get enough of the British television series “Upstairs Downstairs.”

Both took viewers behind the scenes of the British upper and/or monied classes, and – at least with the latter series – contrasted the experiences of those who owned money with those who worked for it.

Yet in his “Downton Abbey” movie, Fellows adds in a few contemporary issues – among them women’s rights and the plight of gay men. And though welcome, neither changes the overall template.

Which is just what the series fans ordered.