Where did we leave things at Downton Abbey, the grand, old Yorkshire home of the Crawley clan and their devoted staff? The ITV/PBS series’s sixth and final season was a study in happy endings: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the long-suffering middle daughter, was finally happily married; as was her hard-nosed older sister, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who also assumed administrative control of Downton when her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), fell ill. Isobel (Penelope Wilton), Mary’s former mother-in-law, became engaged to the Crawleys’ family friend, Lord Merton (Douglas Reith); while downstairs, Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, wed Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper, and left his post at Downton after developing a tremor; the kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) was engaged to the second footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); and Mary’s lady’s maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), gave birth to a healthy son by her husband, Bates (Brendan Coyle), Lord Grantham’s valet. Again and again, love asserted itself as the answer.
As a film—penned by the show’s creator and writer Julian Fellowes, and directed by Michael Engler—if Downton Abbey is similarly eager to please, its metrics have also changed. Where the series was exhaustive in its pursuit of personal victories, its silver-screen adaptation takes a wider view: In the end, it argues, the needs of Downton Abbey—the house and its attending community, caught in a slew of absurdly gorgeous establishing shots—come first. Be warned: Spoilers ahead.
The proof comes in the form of a startling announcement: King George V and Queen Mary (played by Simon Jones and Geraldine James) are coming to stay. In quick order, Carson comes out of retirement; Edith returns home with her husband, Bertie, the 7th Marquess of Hexham (Harry Hadden-Paton); and Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), prepares to spar with Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, over the inheritance that Violet believes belongs to Lord Grantham, Lady Bagshaw’s nearest known relation. (Classic Downton Abbey fare.)
Downton’s staff—royalists all, apparently, except for Daisy, the token firebrand—springs into action, ready and willing to serve; but a drop-in from the King’s butler, or “Page of the Backstairs” (David Haig), brings their fun to a grinding halt. For the duration of the royal visit, he informs them, their services won’t be needed; the King and Queen travel with an extensive retinue. Rather than retire to their rooms with a sigh of relief, however, Team Downton, led by Anna and Bates, decides to wage war on their liveried interlopers. They may be husbands, wives, innkeepers, and teachers, too, but, at the end of the day, the servants of Downton Abbey take enormous pride in being just that; and God help anyone who gets in their way. (Well, except for the footman-turned-butler Barrow. Played by Rob James-Collier, he is quick to make himself scarce, and has a very gay day off, indeed).
If their aims seem depressingly earnest—never has the suggestion that one sit down and read a long book inspired so much ire as in this movie—I’ll admit that after the hell that Fellowes dragged them through on the show (prison, rape, infertility treatment, a murder investigation), it was nice to see the Bateses in high spirits, getting up to a bit of mischief.
In the main house, there’s a similar subjugation-of-the-self-for-the-whole thing at play; mainly by way of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the Irish-born ex-chauffeur and widower of Lady Sybil, the third Crawley sister, who died in season three. I’ve never much cared for Branson—finding your wife’s family suffocating is not a personality! (cc: Matt Smith’s Prince Philip on The Crown)—but he emerges as Downton’s unlikely hero.
First, after a string of clandestine meetings with the shadowy Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), Branson—an outspoken Irish socialist—ends up foiling an assassination attempt on King George with Lady Mary (!), placing his father-in-law’s politics forcefully ahead of his own. Then, he accidentally talks Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) into doubling down on her obviously unhappy marriage to the stuffy, mustachioed Viscount Lascelles (Andrew Havill), and falls in love with Lucy Smith, Lady Bagshaw’s maid and intended heir.
Is it strange that a character who, for years and years, wrestled against the prescriptions of the landed aristocracy should become a Crown-preserving landed aristocrat himself? While Edith ultimately outranking the rest of her family felt a just reward for six straight seasons of thwarted romance (“That seemed a fun way of ending a career when she was always so unlucky,” Fellowes remarked to Deadline after the series finale), having Branson burrow ever further into a world that he’s long been ambivalent about doesn’t sit as well. If we can glorify the staff as staff; and cheer Mary on for keeping Downton up and running, unwieldy as it may be by 1927; why can’t we also let Branson just be Branson? What of his pride, of his self-respect?
But I can't complain too much. More than three years after its final episode (nearly four for those who watched across the pond), it’s a joy to return to Downton’s pretty little world. Even after rewatching a few late-series episodes (hardly necessary to keep up with the action), the swell of John Lunn’s string-heavy score covered me with goosebumps, and I chuckled (aloud!) at several of the Dowager Countess’s cracks. There was no pressing need for this movie, especially when Downton Abbey ended on its own terms, but what does it matter? If, in the theatre, you’re not instantly transported to Charleston-era England, then you’re at least reminded of early 2016—and that, at least to me, is well worth the price of admission.
Originally Appeared on Vogue