There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series is named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).
The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.
There is a ton of drama and romance over the run of the series, plus World War I and other seismic historical events.
And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).
And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.
There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.
Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.
Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?
If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series