'Downton Abbey' gracefully moves from TV to big screen

The excitement is equally enormous, upstairs and down, among the aristocrats and servants alike — some of them shedding tears of joy at the news — King George V and Queen Mary themselves will be visiting “Downton Abbey.”

We’ll be re-visiting. With breathless anticipation to match the Crawleys’, devoted fans have been waiting three years since it signed off TV for the most Emmy-adorned series (69 nominations, 15 wins) to make its debut on the bigger screen.

Those devotees won’t be disappointed. The cinematic Downton looks and feels quite like the televised Downton, extended in length and enhanced by the more sumptuous production values the film medium affords.

'Downton Abbey'



  • Starring: Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter.
  • Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive material and language.

More important, your popular favorite characters are (almost) all back for the reprise. Chief among them, of course, is the Dowager Countess Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) in reinvigorated battle with fellow dowagers Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) and Lady Maud Bagshaw (Dame Imelda Staunton), at odds and each other’s throats — the dueling dames’ repartee graduating from acerbic to acidic.

“Since when are you an expert in this matter?” Violet is asked.

“I am an expert in every matter,” replies Maggie, all-time master-mistress of sotto voce and the piquant throwaway line.

“Remember to pray for us,” her son Robert asks.

“I’ll put in a word,” she offers.

Stalwarts Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern do yeoman service as Robert and Cora, the currently reigning Earl and Countess of Grantham, but it’s the impossibly beautiful Michelle Dockery as their daughter, Lady Mary, who totally knocks me out with her Louise Brooks hairdo, which never looked better, even on Brooksie herself. Unfortunately here, she serves less as an active protagonist than as a plot facilitator, nodding to the men’s plans as they are gradually revealed to her.

Ah, but Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is a very active participant, summoned from retirement as butler extraordinaire for the royal visit, to the furious resentment of Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), his successor. Mr. Carson will soon be equally resentful when the king’s “page of the backstairs” (David Haig) usurps his duties for the royal visit.

A concurrent battle of the housekeepers (Phyllis Logan vs. Richenda Carey) ensues, while Downton’s great cook Mrs. Patmore (the very funny Lesley Nicol) — hugely offended by the king’s foppish chef’s takeover of her kitchen — joins fellow household rebels for the comeuppance.

Comeuppance? What about Tuppence — surname Middleton — as Lady Maud’s mysterious companion Lucy? How does the delightful scullery maid Daisy (Sophie McShera), with her jealous boyfriend Andy (Michael Fox), unwittingly assist in the sabotage?

Julian Fellowes’ screenplay is faithful, and comparable, to his original creations for the TV series, akin to his Oscar-winning script for “Gosford Park” (2001). His multipronged subplots here include the pressing Irish rebellion question, a near-assassination, a bit of protofeminism, and the Love That Dare Not Speak its Name. The ingeniously written characters are all endowed, to varying degrees, with empathetic qualities.

There are no creepy Crawleys. The audience is so thoroughly comfortable with them that, at the preview screening, people pointed and murmured whenever a new (old) one appeared. The makers assume we know the plethora of characters. Maybe, maybe not.

Either way, don’t scratch too deeply beneath the surface in search of their great depth. The glib denouement wraps up all the loose ends in brisk TV-style explications — a line or two, while dancing at the final dazzling ball, for example.

Slickly directed by Michael Engler (Emmy-nominated multiple times for directing episodes of Downton Abbey, 30 Rock, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under and West Wing), this “Downton” is blessed with truly sensational post-Edwardian costumes, sets and picture-perfect cinematography. It struck me, watching the aerial shot of the abbey at the end, that it’s no more or less a fairytale of imagination than the Disney studio’s iconic castle logo — with real rooms and people, if not “reality,” inside.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

First Published September 20, 2019, 7:30am

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