Movie critic Sean P. Means has never seen more than five minutes of the iconic PBS series “Downton Abbey.” Television critic Scott D. Pierce is proper obsessed — he sang the show’s praises again and again and again for six seasons, but was skeptical of taking the soapy historical drama to the big screen. Here’s their joint review.
Pierce, after resisting urges to lean over and fansplain things to Means • I was wrong. Despite my reservations, it transitioned to movie form beautifully.
Means • I felt I was being thrown into the deep end for the first half hour. Screenwriter and series creator Julian Fellowes, and director Michael Engler (who helmed three episodes and the 2015 Christmas finale), don’t do much recapping for the uninitiated. Like any newcomer to a big house, it’s up to us to figure out what hallways lead where.
That being said, I did rather enjoy it once I started piecing together who was married to who, and which servants tended to which nobles.
Pierce • I wondered if you could follow what was happening. Everyone was familiar to me, and it was like greeting old friends I hadn’t l seen for a while. Even Lord Grantham’s dog.
Means • Let me try to synopsize. It’s 1927, and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), get word that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be staying at Downton Abbey for a night and a day while on a tour of Yorkshire. There’s much commotion, mostly involving Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) trying to get everything ready and keeping the servants humming along — even bringing the family’s former head butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), out of retirement, to the consternation of his successor, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier).
The biggest subplot upstairs seems to involve the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley — played by Maggie Smith, who makes me regret not watching this show before — dreading a reunion with a cousin, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who is Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting. (The scenes between Smith and Staunton are delicious, and for “Harry Potter” fans, a long-desired McGonagall vs. Umbridge rematch.)
Downstairs, the servants are excited about serving royalty. So they are quite miffed when they learn they are to be shoved aside in favor of the royal staff.
Pierce • We already knew from the trailers that Mr. Barrow would have a bit of a love interest. But it’s complicated, as you’d expect in 1927, when pretty much every gay man was in the closet. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is in the thick of two major plot lines. And there are subplots with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) that fans will enjoy.
I was struck by how many of the characters actually played important parts in the plot, although there were a few who made essentially cameo appearances. Including Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot.
Means • With any franchise, there will always be the accusation that the filmmakers are providing “fan service.” Fans are the reason “Downton Abbey: The Movie” exists, so, of course, the filmmakers want to make those fans happy.
Pierce • Worked for me.
Means • The problem I had was that the storylines seem so packed into the film that there was little time to breathe in the atmosphere. There’s not a lot of feel for what life in Downton Abbey — for the family on top or the staff below — is actually like.
Pierce • And that’s the disadvantage if you didn’t watch the series. Again, I felt right at home.
Means • As an Anglophile, someone who grew up on “Upstairs Downstairs,” there’s a lot in “Downton Abbey” that I admire. Dame Maggie is a delight, particularly in her acerbic exchanges with Isobel (Penelope Wilton) — and her final scene with Dockery is one for the ages. Joanna Froggatt owns the movie as Anna Bates, maid and confidante to Mary and Edith, and stealth commander of the backstairs.
Pierce • Dame Maggie alone is worth the price of admission. Her one-liners were hilarious, and the humor quotient overall was much higher than any episode I can recall.
Fellowes’ script was not just clever, but smart. If he’d gone for high drama with life-or-death stakes, it would have felt over-the-top and contrived. There was drama and comedy dealing with the royal visit, which was a reason to return to Downton Abbey. But it was a feel-good experience — and it sure didn’t seem like just a set-up for a sequel. (Although it didn’t close the door on that possibility.)
If you’ve never seen “Downton Abbey,” there’s a lot you can like here, but you’re going to miss a lot, too. If you’re a “Downton Abbey” fan, you’ve got to see the movie or you’ll be missing out.
Means • Seeing “Downton Abbey: The Movie” gives me some understanding of why fans have made such a fuss over the show. It’s sharp, witty and big-hearted. And it makes me want to go back and catch at least some of the series.
The high-class soap opera, of the noble Crawley family and their many servants, gets a smart and warm-hearted transfer to the movie screen.
Where • Theaters everywhere
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 20
Rated • PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language.
Running time • 122 minutes