If you never watched the TV series “Downton Abbey,” you probably always wondered what the big fuss was about some stodgy British drama. I did watch it, and I can tell you, the fuss was mostly warranted.
It’s a grand soap opera, and soap operas are successful for a reason — the upstairs/downstairs intrigue that takes place throughout the series sticks its hooks in you from the very first episode. Not all of it worked: Some plotlines were riveting, some tedious, and others frankly repellent, but it knew how to create drama and how to relieve that with a heavy dose of wry humor.
I talk about the TV show because the new movie, Downton Abbey, doesn’t exist apart from it, and doesn’t intend to. It takes up not terribly long after the series ended in the 1920s, with the king and queen coming to visit the Downton estate in northern England, and everyone scrambling about to be sure to make a good impression.
The masterstroke with this movie is that it leaves aside all of the bits from the series I found distasteful and is mostly purely delightful. We get to see our favorite characters generally being good to each other and banding together to present Downton in the best light possible. Of course there are still plot twists, with faint echoes of series creator Julian Fellowes’ script for Robert Altman’s fantastic film Gosford Park, but it mostly all works out, and even those characters who have played villainous roles in the past are depicted with compassion and given reason to have hope, even if our knowledge of their lot in life leaves us a bit wistful. It is necessary to set aside any issue you may have with class exploitation, as the entire Downton staff seems to be happy to be in their perpetual subordinate roles, but for better or worse, the movie makes ignoring this very, very easy.
I honestly didn’t see the reason for a movie of Downton Abbey to exist, but now I get it. It’s pretty much exactly what many people want when they go to the movies: charm, plenty of fun, lovely costumes, and a smile.