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Downton Abbey: A Film for the Fans

High quality British humor combined with unrealistic and wonderfully dramatic events made for intoxicating television for five years. Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, a British television series, is set in England in the years 1912 to 1925. It follows the family of the Earl of Grantham and their staff, who all live at Downton. For six seasons, Downton Abbey mixed high drama—heirs drowning on the Titanic, crippling injuries in the Great War, miraculous recoveries from said injuries, several wrongful accusations, and imprisonments—with an attention to historical detail that was spellbinding.

The sixth season of Downton Abbey ends happily. Every character arc comes to a satisfying end and Mr. and Mrs. Bates, who have borne the brunt of most plot twists, finally have a baby. There was no realistic way of continuing the story. And yet, its makers decided to make a film.

The movie Downton Abbey is set two years after the end of Season Six. Having already established in 2015 that the story had well and truly ended, I was skeptical of the new film. My cynicism lasted a millisecond into the trailer. Only a hard-hearted human could hear the Downton Abbey theme song plucking away and not be transported into the joy of a good, fanciful, cinematic experience. The premise of the new film is that the “King and Queen are coming to Downton.” On a royal tour, King George V and Queen Mary intend to stop at Downton for one night of dinner, dancing, and drama. 

The cinema was nearly empty for the 10:00 p.m. Thursday showing. Two friends and I, all of us tired and homesick, placed ourselves in the middle of the theater to settle in for some soul therapy. The film is full of the bustle of preparation. Silver must be polished, dust must be beaten out of rugs, and food must be ordered to feed the royals. Imagine, then, the uproar when the staff of the royal household arrive and declare the Downton staff incapable of waiting on their monarch. Mr. Wilson, the royal butler, formally known by the exquisite title of Royal Page of the Backstairs, proves to be a Royal Pain of the Downstairs as he leads his posse in treading on the toes of all the Downton staff. Queue machinations of a treasonous degree—Mrs. Bates leads the charge to take back control over the household. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you—but the dinner also includes a Mr. Molesley gaffe which is easily the most cringeworthy moment in Downton Abbey’s long history.

I doubt this film is one for those who look for genius in films. Nor is it for anyone looking for films that bear some semblance of reality with discussion of themes important to our lives today. The discovery by Thomas, the butler, that there is a gay scene in York is one of the more serious aspects of the film. It is a reminder that Downton Abbey is set in a tumultuous time—with all the social tensions of the European interwar period. Daisy, the Republican, still represents the class divide in her indifference towards the monarchy. These examples notwithstanding, Downton Abbey is not social commentary. It exists in a place separate from us. Downton Abbey is, however, soul food. We should watch it to forget our cynicism. What is entertainment if not something to distract ourselves from the discontents of our daily lives? Even Thomas, the notorious manipulator, finds somebody to love him.

Upstairs, the filmmakers reflect the denouement of the show in the story of the characters. Tom, former Irish firebrand and now loyal son-of-the-house, oddly appears as the protagonist of the story, proving that a leopard can change his spots in saving the King from an attempted assassination attempt. Mary struggles with the weight of keeping up Downton and its traditions, and the great matriarch comes to terms with the fact that her reign is coming to an end. Downton Abbey had a large American audience, perhaps because Americans love the concept of English royalty and nobility. I’ve always thought, however, that it had a worldwide appeal. In part because it allows us to see history in the details—the clothes, dinner etiquettes, the funny formal accents—but also in part because the characters are so relatable. Like Thomas, everyone has made mistakes that they did not believe they could come back from. Like Robert, most people have felt foolish and downtrodden at some point in their lives. It is good to be reminded that the human experience has been lived before and will be lived again. Downton Abbey has had a good run. View it with the melancholic smile that tells you all’s well that ends well.