“Downton Abbey” reopens its grand doors, in a movie where half the battle – and much of the thrill – hinges on merely reassembling the enormous cast. The result is a warm if somewhat flat trip back in time that approximates the feel of the show’s Christmas specials, only over-sized, and as cozy as a seat by the manor’s fire.
After six seasons that yielded the kind of ratings PBS seldom sees, “Downton” closed its run in 2016, with happy endings all around. So series creator Julian Fellowes had some work to do in order to devise the circumstances that would justify a return engagement, settling on a Royal visit, with all the pomp and circumstance that entails.
From the first distant glimpse of the estate, as John Lunn’s lush score swells in accompaniment, it’s clear that the movie will basically luxuriate in the show’s elegant trappings, with everything slightly magnified from its TV incarnation.
At the same time, there are chaotic preparations to receive the king and queen, and comical friction with the Royal Family’s retinue, who bring several trunks of snotty attitude along with them.
That dynamic actually conjures more drama in the downstairs part of the house, where the retired butler Carson (Jim Carter) is brought out of retirement like an old relief pitcher, much to the chagrin of his replacement, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier).
Upstairs, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) finds herself wrestling, again, with whether the way of life into which she was born – where a privileged family resides in a great house teeming with servants – is disappearing; brother-in-law Tom (Allen Leech) is questioned about his allegiance to the monarchy; and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) clashes, as only she can, with a relative (Imelda Staunton, one of the newcomers) with royal connections, who can more than hold her own.
Working with director Michael Engler, Fellowes as usual finds meaty material for an abundance of characters, which has always been his gift. In Barrow’s case, that includes a somewhat deeper dive into what it meant to be gay and closeted in this era.
It’s nevertheless difficult to completely surmount questions – other than the cash grab – of elevating this to a movie, even if the sense of finery is understandably heightened by the family’s guests, yielding the sort of dazzling imagery will likely renew tourism interest in Highclere Castle.
Nevertheless, it’s worth a return to Downton if only for the greatness of these characters and their particular quirks, from hearing Carter’s puffed-up Carson mention acts of “disloyal tomfoolery” to Smith’s imperious Dowager saying, well, pretty much anything, especially when sparring with Isobel (Penelope Wilton).
It’s easy to argue that this trip back was unnecessary, a description that applies to many a revival and reboot. That’s especially true, perhaps, because the show closed the book in such tidy fashion.
Despite the series’ much-adorned run, the movie isn’t a masterpiece, or the sort of event that might warrant rushing out to the theater. Ultimately, though, it’s another satisfying chapter, demonstrating that enough still glitters around “Downton Abbey” to make it worth seeing for anyone who loved the show, eventually, if not sooner.
“Downton Abbey” premieres Sept. 20 in the US. It’s rated PG.