In the opening scene of the Downton Abbey movie, a letter makes its way from a desk in central London to a country house in Yorkshire. For moviegoers who watched the TV show—which will surely be every single one of them—this journey may seem familiar. After all, back in 2010, the series’ very first episode began with another communiqué reaching Downton, on that occasion a telegram informing the Earl of Grantham that his heir, who also happened to be his daughter Mary’s fiancé, had perished on the Titanic. It took six seasons to resolve the legal and romantic challenges that bit of Morse code set in motion—and by the end of the 52nd episode, creator Julian Fellowes’ limited repertoire of dramatic tics and tricks had been repeated so frequently that even I, who thought my appetite for posh people’s problems was unquenchable, was sick of the sight of that famous estate.
But something wonderful happened in the translation from multipart TV series to two-hour movie. Just take that opening sequence. The letter’s journey northward is dramatic, efficient, and suspenseful—three adjectives that were rarely used to describe the final seasons of the TV show. And its contents are refreshingly upbeat: The king and queen are visiting Yorkshire and plan to stay overnight at Downton. Arranging a royal visit might be stressful, but it is also exciting, and the long list of items on everyone’s to-do list will keep masters and servants alike too busy to ponder the sustainability of their way of life. (Though gloomy Lady Mary still finds a way to do so.)
Being reintroduced to the residents of Downton Abbey is like running into old neighbors who moved out years ago—their faces look familiar, and you remember their annoying habits, but their names can be elusive. Fellowes, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, seems to expect this. Nothing in the script requires viewers to recall anything about Daisy Mason’s backstory—in fact, better not to, since her departure for her father-in-law’s farm at the end of Season 6 seems to have been forgotten. For the purposes of the movie, it’s enough to know Daisy (Sophie McShera) as the bolshie undercook who has a habit of hesitating on her way to the altar. The same goes for the privileged members of the Crawley family—the daggered looks between Violet (Maggie Smith) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) establish them as feuding friends, just as the pursed lips Mary (Michelle Dockery) always offers to Edith (Laura Carmichael) indicate that they are squabbling sisters. On the one occasion that some biographical background is required, a clunky piece of exposition reminds us that the very Irish Tom Branson (Allen Leech) entered Downton as a chauffeur, married into the very English family, and has been uncertain of his position among the Crawleys ever since he was widowed.
The plot of the Downton Abbey movie is brilliant, not so much because it is surprising, but because it allows every member of the cast to do what we expect of them. This is most interesting among the servants, for whom the visit of King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) is the thrill of a lifetime. When they learn that the royals travel with their own set of retainers, meaning that they won’t be waiting on the king and queen, they get to use their highly developed plotting and scheming skills against the usurpers. It is the very peak of Fellowes-dom that when the Downton servants finally rise up, their rebellion is not against the monarchical system that oppresses them but rather against another group of commoners whose lives are dedicated to serving spoiled aristocrats. These loathsome intruders are cartoonishly jumped-up, arrogant, and sour-faced versions of Downton’s Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore, and Mrs. Hughes. Meanwhile, every royal, no matter how minor, is the very soul of gracious noblesse oblige.
Almost every surviving TV cast member shows up in the movie, which means there are a lot of mouths to feed lines to. Only a handful get fully fleshed-out stories, including Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who finds a few moments of gay joy outside the smothering confines of Downton when Mr. Carson is brought back from retirement for a last bit of butler-ing. The unfortunate Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who found his vocation and a modicum of dignity in the schoolroom at the end of Season 6, again dons livery and is once again a figure of fun. And undisputed fan favorite Violet, the dowager countess, gets off a few slightly muted zingers as she schemes against royal lady-in-waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) about—what else!—a family inheritance.
In its early seasons, Downton Abbey was responsible for some of television’s most stirring romantic storylines. When the love stories fizzled, so did the show. Mary losing Matthew and Tom losing Sybil hurt the series far more than the unconvincing World War I trench scenes or Bates’ endless murder trial. The movie has two romances, and neither is particularly well developed. But that’s OK. The thrill of the film lies in seeing everyone again. At least for a couple of hours.