Into our disheveled modern world, run by politically, morally and sartorially sloppy leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, the feature film version of "Downton Abbey" arrives just in time to tidy up.
All brand names and franchises lean into the concept of fan service; this one leans so far, it falls forward onto a fainting couch. It's not a movie, really. It's a commemorative "Downton Abbey" throw pillow.
It'll no doubt placate millions of fans of creator Julian Fellowes' global TV smash, which preoccupied much of our own United States in its six PBS seasons from 2011 to 2016. Screenwriter Fellowes keeps things in moderate-to-medium bustle, circling an extremely simple idea. King George V and Queen Mary are coming to Yorkshire (the time is 1927, just after the series' narrative timeline): They've invited themselves, along with an invading army of butlers and cooks, to stay at the pleasantly expansive manse of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, who gets weirdly little to do) and his Yankee wife, Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern, same).
What else happens? There is a lot, yet it feels like a little. Downton's retired butler Carson (Jim Carter, he of the gorgeous stentorian voice) swings back into service, gratefully, while Barrow (Robert James-Collier), onetime footman promoted to butler, is introduced into Yorkshire's gay underground. The depiction is sympathetic, though it will strike some as slightly ahistorical.
Attempted political assassination shares the story with a half-hearted mystery angle (who's stealing all the silver and jewelry?). A new character, Lady Maud (Imelda Staunton), matches wits with her estranged dowager cousin, the resident Pez zinger dispenser Lady Violet (Maggie Smith). Meantime the servants are revolting, discreetly. Sidelined by the insufferable royal crew charged with preparing and serving meals and waiting on the king and queen, the Downton staff wages a stealth rebellion. Anything so that Downton Abbey, and "Downton Abbey," can have the satisfaction of a job done well.
Well enough, let's say. The film lacks a gratifying middle. It's all royalty preparation porn (close-ups of silverware, gleaming, while the camera swoops and glides) on the front end. On the back end, there's entirely too much "job well done!" self-congratulation and farewells, plus curtain calls, and epilogues, and ballroom dancing exit dialogue and subplot wrap-up, plus additional epilogues. The chief payoff with the film version is indicated, bluntly, early on when Countess Cora hears of the royal visit and says: "We will never stop changing our clothes."
The hats are especially lovely, and Michelle Dockery, here blanded-down by her material but still one of the bright lights of the ensemble, takes top honors as both actress and clotheshorse. Director Engler has several "Downton Abbey" TV episodes to his credit, along with scads of other series work, including "Sex and the City." The "Sex and the City" film versions (one not bad, the other not good) were similarly committed to the notion of servicing presold lovers of the TV show. I'd say "Downton Abbey" falls about halfway in quality between the first and second "Sex and the City" movies. The cinematography by Ben Smithard looks oddly flat, and the compositions rarely take effective advantage of the wider canvas. The rhythms of the film are no different from the neatly diced segments of the hour-long TV episodes, and they're punctuated by musical swells and cappers precisely as they were on the small screen. After a while you begin inserting your own commercials, mentally.
As long-form storytelling the "Downton Abbey" TV show certainly did the trick for millions, though without developing the dramatic impact or subtlety of character found in one of its clearest influences, "Upstairs Downstairs." Fellowes, as a writer, was up to something different in his Oscar-winning script for "Gosford Park": a mordant, bittersweet examination of class and corruption within the comforting framework of an Agatha Christie whodunit. It was director Robert Altman's last great film. "Downton Abbey" settles for lower franchise stakes; it's more like "Downton Abbey: The Exhibition," or an accompanying "making of" video thereof.
It's fun, for a while, to see the gang back together in "Downton Abbey," with nearly two dozen rotating characters played by actors whose eyes twinkle with confidence. But I'm with Deborah Ross of The Spectator, who wrote of the film's British premiere last week: "Fans will race to see it even though it is, in truth, extremely predictable as well as extremely dull." Or the Telegraph's Tim Robey, who argued: "You couldn't say this comfortably belongs in a cinema at any stage."
And now, as I've begun rewatching "Upstairs Downstairs" after several decades, excuse me while I spend some time with a TV show that feels more like a real movie than the "Downton Abbey" movie does.
Rated PG (for thematic elements, some suggestive material and language)
Running time: 2:03