Mere months ago, I found myself sitting in a theater waiting patiently through a slew of trailers I had already seen. Suddenly, instead of loud noises, police sirens, or a rap song that had no business appearing in an animated movie, we heard the swelling of an orchestral piece. I was hooked immediately. Not only was the song unique, but emotionally moving as well. Think of it: being moved to the point of tears by a score for a film you’ve never seen. Right away, I told my partner, “We have to see that movie.” “Definitely!”, she replied. “What’s it called?”
Downton Abbey, of course, is no stranger to screens, just those of the silver variety. In 2010, PBS and Masterpiece Theater released their new show, Downton Abbey, which would dominate water cooler talk until 2015 when they finished with the sixth season. The world fell in love with the Royal Crawley family and their loyal house staff, watching in awe while they navigate life shortly after the news of the Titanic broke. Downton Abbey takes place over a span of years during the early 20th century, covering many topics from the Titanic, war, and the roaring 20’s. How does a royal family behave during these events? How does their house staff feel about waiting on one family for a majority of their life? Who killed J.R?? Oops, different show, but the intrigue and mystery remained present!
It’s 1928. The Crawleys are running the Downton Abbey estate just as they were during the series finale, but they receive a bit of news. The King and Queen are coming to stay at Downton during a tour. Everyone is on high alert as they prepare the house (and themselves) for the royal occasion. Old friends return to help get things in order, while new faces appear to cause a bit of trouble. Daughters to the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Mary and Edith, are reunited after Edith left Downton to live with her husband and daughter, leaving Mary to run the estate with the help of their brother-in-law, Tom Branson. Mr. Carson returns as head butler for the occasion, much to the dismay of current head butler, Mr. Barrow.
Afraid of slipping into his old ways, Mr. Barrow seeks a helping hand in finding himself without a title. Always apart of the theatrics and controversy, the Dowager Countess Violet (an incredibly hilarious Maggie Smith) finds that her relative, Maud Bagshaw, is traveling with the King and Queen and intends to contest the will, removing Robert, the Earl of Grantham, from it entirely. Meanwhile. the maids, kitchen, and butler staff are finding themselves removed from the equation when the first-hands to the King and Queen demand to take over all responsibilities while waiting on their majesties. Will Downton ever be the same?
Clocking in at just under two hours, Downton Abbey is a perfect slice of escapism and wonder. Having not seen the series before, I was concerned at how well I would be able to follow the story and characters without proper knowledge. Thankfully, a 10 minute recap was tagged onto the beginning of our screening, introducing the characters and their most important relationships, challenges, as well as where we last left them. Recaps can seem long winded, especially right before seeing a new entry of the franchise, but Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan (who play Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes respectively) do a great job of making it feel like a short story rather than a “previously on…” segment. Knowing all of the characters, their struggles, and their happily-ever-after, I was eager to see where we would meet the Crawleys next. I am not sure if this recap clip will play in front of all showings of Downton Abbey, but you can find it here.
There are plenty of romantic moments, comedic deliveries mostly by Maggie Smith, and thrilling sequences on display in Downton Abbey, but it’s the relationship between the Crawleys and their house staff that grabbed my attention the most. One would think that a house of royal family members living among their staff would show superiority or jealously. Instead, the two parties have great admiration and respect for each other, seeing the title as only that and nothing more. Multiple times we hear house staff mention how thrilling it is to just serve. A less graceful film would focus narrowly on the dynamics between the classes, but Downton Abbey is not that film. There is an honor, a grace that befits the one who serves royalty and the Downton staff is happy to serve as long as they can.
The idea of Robert and Cora, the Countess of Grantham, losing their estate is nothing new to fans of the show, but creator Julian Fellowes intends to spice things up by further studying his characters, including Thomas Barrow, Tom Branson, Lord Mary, and Lord Edith. Their journeys solidify who these characters are as people to the public, their private life, and most importantly, who they are to themselves. Thomas and Tom get the best arcs here, showing their vulnerabilities and how not to lose the things they love most in life. Thomas’ arc can and has been done with heavy hands in the past, but Downton Abbey handles it with grace and honor.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the truly amazing score provided by John Lunn and The Chamber Orchestra of London. It feels like a perfect representation of the Downton estate: regal, but cheerful and emotional. The Downton Abbey theme specifically is why I bought my ticket and the remainder of the score did not disappoint. You will be humming different tunes all the way out of your theater, guaranteed.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
Should you go see Downton Abbey before watching the entire 52 episode series? Probably. But I cannot speak high enough praise to the 10 minute recap provided before our showing that filled in all the gaps and made the experience feel seamless. Regardless, Downton Abbey has a little bit of everything for everyone, never wanting to alienate an audience, but finding ways to bring them into the Crawleys’ lives. Now, if PBS is making movies for all their series, let’s talk about an Antiques Roadshow adaptation.