Break out the clotted cream and the plus fours. “Downton Abbey” is back.
More than three years after the last time Lady Mary snubbed Lady Edith in the TV series, which ran from 2011-2016 on PBS’ “Masterpiece” in this country, they’re back Friday to snipe again in what may be a series of “Downton Abbey” movies. Since it’s been a while, you may have forgotten where to put the cheese knife in a place setting (next to the dessert spoon, duh) and who’s doing what to whom in the servants’ quarters. We have you covered.
Real fans of the TV soap opera about life in a Yorkshire manor from 1912-1926 have one big question about the movie: Is Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham in it a lot? And the answer is: Yes.
The two-time Oscar winner has been vocal about her reluctance to return to a character she hinted she’s a little tired of playing. The countess, whose infrequently used name is Violet, addresses the doubts and difficulties of being 85 in the film’s lovely final scenes, but she remains as vigorous and as full of brittle remarks as ever (“Machiavelli is frequently underrated — he had many qualities”).
Barrow, the petulant gay servant who’s often on the outs with co-workers, also is heavily featured, even though he departs Downton in a snit when he discovers he won’t be in charge of preparing for the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary (the current queen’s grandpa and grandma). His colleague, kitchen maid Daisy, also gets lots of screen time of both a personal and professional nature. So does Lady Mary’s personal maid, Anna, who’s the key link between upstairs and downstairs. And Mrs. Hughes has plenty to do, starting with glaring at the royals’ venomous staff. They have another think coming if they believe the Downton workers will let them run the household for the duration of their stay.
Upstairs, eventual head of the household Lady Mary gets the most face time as she grapples with the future of the estate, at a time when many British mansions are becoming hospitals or museums. Her brother-in-law, chauffeur-turned-swell Tom Branson, figures in several subplots (and Allen Leech, who plays him, has clearly spent the last four years on a Soloflex machine).
Remember Lady Rose, the cousin who suddenly showed up halfway through the TV show? Neither does the movie, which doesn’t even mention her. Perished in a Charleston accident, possibly? The Dowager Countess’ daughter and bickering servants are similarly MIA and if you blink, you’ll miss Isobel Crawley’s sidepiece, Lord Merton.
Most of the other characters at least make a polite appearance, but many don’t have much to do. As in the TV show, for instance, the children toddle in to remind us they exist and then are sent off to bed until they reach adulthood. The movie figured out that Mr. Bates, the valet whose possible murderousness the show spent far too much time on, is not interesting; it metes out his screen time accordingly. We also don’t see much of Lady Mary’s decorative husband, Henry Talbot (even though actor Matthew Goode is bizarrely listed first on the movie’s imdb.com page), or Miss Baxter, who became a key member of the staff in later episodes but mostly wipes out soup tureens in the film.
Yes, even with two dozen recurring characters to juggle, the movie has some newcomers, starting with the king, queen and their daughter, Mary (the third Mary in the movie, if you’re keeping score at home). Give or take Geraldine James, who plays the queen, the biggest star joining the cast is Imelda Staunton, an Oscar nominee for “Vera Drake” and, like Smith, a former Hogwarts faculty member. Staunton plays one of those never-before-mentioned cousins the TV series occasionally trotted out in order to spice things up, and she hauls along a companion who could be a love interest for somebody in the household.
Does it work as a movie?
Cineplexes are littered with the corpses of TV shows that attempted to transition to the movies (sorry, “Sex and the City,” but those movies sucked), but “Downton’s” shift is as smooth as a créme Anglaise. Basically, it feels like watching two episodes, back to back.
A word of caution to those who skipped the TV show: You may be lost. No effort is made to get Downtonewbies up to speed on the characters or their ongoing dilemmas.
Remind me of a few things?
A couple of things to remember from the series finale: Mr. Carson isn’t buttling anymore for Downton, having retired as a newlywed (his wife is still called Mrs. Hughes and she’s still running the house). After several attempts, Lady Edith finally fell in love and no longer lives at Downton. Long-suffering servants Anna and Bates had a baby but don’t expect to see him or her. Tom is now a car salesman. Mary is in the midst of taking over the running of the estate from her father, Lord Grantham. It’s the flapper era, so all of the younger Grantham women are wearing straight dresses and short hair. Despite a gift for withering burns that suggest she has a joke writer holed up in her parlor, the Dowager Countess has revealed a sentimental streak a mile wide. And, although it may or may not be historically accurate, it’s still disconcerting that everybody is white.
That should get you ready. The “Downton Abbey” movie is a lavish affair, packed with characters, subplots and fancy costumes. But when it hits theaters Friday, here’s hoping moviegoers will agree with the Dowager Countess that “nothing succeeds like excess.”