The many millions of Downton Abbey fans are in for a treat with this most welcome return to the stateliness and splendor of a beloved television series now brought to the big screen with an opulence and splendor that the world of its characters deserves.
The Production: 4/5
When creator-writer Julian Fellowes and producer Gareth Neame brought international television phenomenon Downton Abbey to a close after six seasons, they made sure the extensive cast of characters were given if not completely happy endings then mostly satisfying ones. Now three years later, enthusiasm from the show’s rabid fan base has achieved the impossible: the gathering together of almost the entire cast in a new adventure featuring almost all of the original cast. For fans of the show, it’s a thrilling new chapter to the saga with a group of people who are cherished and beloved by their admirers, and the filmmakers have not let their fans down: Downton Abbey has the look of a very expensive and expansive motion picture despite its television origins, and the stories being told (in true Downton Abbey tradition) constitute a multitude of tales woven together into a single narrative.
The inhabitants of the grand estate Downton Abbey are astonished to learn that the King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James) of England will be touring the district and will be houseguests of Lord (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady (Elizabeth McGovern) Grantham for a night. While both upstairs and downstairs are likewise excited by the singular chance to be within arm’s length of the royal family, complications begin arising almost immediately that test all of their patience and understanding. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) doesn’t feel inexperienced Major Domo Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) can handle the pressures of a royal visit and asks former head butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) to assume his official duties, the enigmatic Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) seems to be subtly investigating Tom Branson (Allen Leech), a well-known Irish Republican who holds no sentiment for the monarchy, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) is priming for a face-off against her distant cousin Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, who’s planning to leave her estate to her maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), a series of items start to go missing around the estate, and most crushing to the downstairs staff, they learn the King and Queen travel with their own staff of butlers, footmen, cooks, and maids so that they’re to play no part at all in serving the Royal Family.
As he did for six years during the run of the series in which he wrote every script, Julian Fellowes skillfully juggles a half dozen plots and subplots during the course of the film’s two hours, weaving stories of both the great lords and ladies and the under-the-stairs servants in magnificent fashion and drolly blending the comic and the dramatic in a manner that the Oscar and Emmy-winning writer has perfected masterfully. All of the fan favorites get their moments of inclusion with special honors going to Joanne Froggatt’s Anna Bates who not only organizes a mini-rebellion against the snobbish and entitled royal servants but also serves as a kind of youngish Miss Marple on the trail of the petty thief in the household and offers both Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) common sense advice and practical solutions to the domestic issues that are worrying them. Director Michael Engler takes his golden opportunity to really play up the grandeur that the big screen offers in regards to this upper class narrative. We get a sweeping initial view of the Downton Abbey estate in the film’s opening moments (as John Lunn’s poignant and majestic music swells on the soundtrack), and he never ceases to capitalize on the scenic splendors afforded him with the pomp and circumstance of a royal visit (a grand parade, lavish dinners, and a climactic ball where the camera literally waltzes along with the splendidly dressed couples). Yes, there are both laughs to be had and tears to be shed as the story winds its calculated way toward its conclusion.
After years of perfecting their performances, it goes without saying that the cast to a person measures up to the lofty standards their previous work had set for them (it’s no accident that the cast won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble cast award three times during the show’s run). Love is in the air for more than one cast member this time around (no spoilers), and Maggie Smith, as she always did during the series’ run where she won three Emmys, walks away with every scene in which she appears despite sterling performances from her most frequent sparring partners Penelope Wilton’s sensible Lady Merton and Imelda Staunton’s determined Lady Bagshaw. It’s a delight seeing Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary and Laura Carmichael’s Lady Edith civil to one another while coping with their own secrets and fears while Kevin Doyle is a hoot as the overwhelmed Joseph Molesley, Allen Leech is an appealing and open widower Tom Branson, and Max Brown and Tuppence Middleton make solid impressions as new faces in the Downton universe.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s wide 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully represented in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is outstanding throughout (except in scenes which have been deliberately soft-focused for atmosphere and nuance), and contrast is superbly applied. Colors are true and beautifully saturated. Black levels are first-rate. The movie has been divided into 20 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio mix offers a grandeur and envelopment never achieved during the six-year run of the television series. While dialogue is clear and precise and sound effects are adroitly applied, the superb background score by John Lunn is sometimes unbalanced with the other parts of the surround environment occasionally overwhelming the surround channels in volume.
Special Features: 4/5
Feature Commentary: director Michael Engler offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes play-by-play about the filming of the movie which fans of the series will not want to miss.
Cast Conversations (16:54, HD): split into upstairs and downstairs participants, the actors discuss the thrill of reuniting to make the film after years away from their roles. Upstairs: Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, and Allen Leech. Downstairs: Jim Carter, Robert James-Collier, Sophie McShera, Imelda Staunton, Phyllis Logan, and Michael C. Fox.
The Royal Visit (3:15, HD): historian Alister Bruce, writer Julian Fellowes, director Michael Engler, and production designer Donal Woods discuss the preparations which had to be made both before and behind the camera to show the event of a royal visit realistically.
True to the Twenties (2:15, HD): costume designer Anna Robbins talks about the changing styles of 1927 compared to the clothes used on the series in earlier periods.
Deleted Scenes (5:33, HD): eight scenes are presented in montage form.
Welcome to Downton Abbey (2:47, HD): a brief tribute to Highclere Castle which serves as the backdrop for Downton Abbey.
The Brilliance of Julian Fellowes (2:14, HD): the screenwriter discusses his approach to opening the story up to make it worthy of a motion picture experience.
Downton Abbey Series Recap (10:09, HD): for those who know nothing of the backgrounds of the cast of regular characters or for those who need a refreshing of their memories after three years away from this story, this quick recap serves to offer backstories for all of the major inhabitants of this world.
DVD/Digital Copy: disc and code sheet enclosed in case.
The many millions of Downton Abbey fans are in for a treat with this most welcome return to the stateliness and splendor of a beloved television series now brought to the big screen with an opulence and largesse that the world of its characters deserves. The Blu-ray release offers outstanding picture and sound quality and some tasty bonus material to whet the hungry appetites of the show’s many admirers. Recommended!