The wonderful thing about watching Downton Abbey on TV was that occasionally the plot would take a turn so British and so old-fashioned that it was hard to figure out what the hell was going on. Cousins got married and it wasn’t weird, men already wearing tuxedos fretted about not being suitably dressed for dinner, and I distinctly remember one episode’s plot hinging on the question of whether a maid was lying about her ability to cook a “restorative broth”—still not sure what that was all about!
Now available in less-convenient movie form, Downton Abbey doubles down on the maddeningly whimsical British stuff, but it lacks the grace and gentle tension of the series. That series, an ensemble drama about a fictional aristocratic family and their live-in servants at a country estate in early 1900s England, was at its best when it juxtaposed the scope and hardships of the “upstairs” and “downstairs” characters. It could even occasionally border on social commentary—but in a mild-mannered, polite way, like a few drops of acidic lemon in a proper cup of tea.
But the film fails to grapple with those class differences in any meaningful way, and forgoes the series’ stroll-through-the-garden pace in an attempt to stuff a lot of plot into its two-hour runtime. An assassination attempt, a police raid on an underground gay bar, an inheritance left to a maid—there’s no shortage of fun material here, but each wrinkle is ironed out before it can take shape.
Exacerbating that rushed feeling is the fact that so much time is devoted to new characters, including historical figures like King George V and Queen Mary. The Downton cast members are thrust into palace intrigue in a clumsy, unconvincing take on Forrest Gump, and I wonder if writer and creator Julian Fellowes might have had better luck with a miniseries reboot, with more room to stretch out the plot points.
All that said, I do recommend Downton Abbey to fellow fans of the series. But it might be best enjoyed not in a theater, but in the same way we watched the show: Streamed at home, where we’re free to gleefully repeat our favorite lines in questionable British accents.