If you are already a fan of creator Julian Fellowes' upstairs-downstairs ITV drama, its big-screen debut will likely delight. All your favourite characters are back, and Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess continues to shower us in delightfully acerbic snark. Every character seems to tell someone how proud they are of them, and everyone does their duty, by George. But if you are not already well acquainted with this fine country house and its residents, there’s little in this aggressively gentle nostalgia trip to really draw you into their story.
This is a film where major plot points turn on precisely how shiny the silver should be ahead of a royal visit to the titular stately home. Bigger story threads involve who gets to serve dinner to the royals — the Downton staff or the King’s own people — and whether Tuppence Middleton’s Lucy Smith, maid to Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), is too big for her boots. What might (laughably) be described as its action climax arrives about halfway through and is barely mentioned again. The true crescendo comes a little later and involves a minor and inconsequential breach of protocol in the service of dinner. But of course it feels huge, because to care about these characters requires the viewer to subscribe, at least for a moment, to their deeply stratified worldview.
There is lip service paid to republicanism here as Downton prepares for the King and Queen, but it is undermined at every turn by how desperately everyone — above and below stairs — cares about class and propriety. This is England as Americans see it, a horrendously dated perspective, though it would be unfair to blame the characters for that, or the talented cast. Everyone at Downton seem like basically nice people doing their best, and while the story they tell might seem like a series of unrelated and unimportant vignettes to newcomers, it has considerable charm despite — or perhaps because of — the low stakes.