They managed it – more or less. A couple of Fellowes’ narrative contrivances are decidedly creaky and the story’s essential soapiness is more obvious on the big screen but its many charms still encourage your indulgence. The expanded scale has given director Michael Engler and his crew the opportunity to lay on the pageantry with a succession of set-pieces done with a fitting show of pomp.
As always, the story is powered by the conviction that Britons are still entertained by watching what was once the nobility preserve rituals, ceremonies and excesses hallowed by tradition. At the same time, Fellowes hedges his bets by planting a couple of republicans among the star-struck monarchists sweating on the royal visit.
Downstairs, Daisy (Sophie McShera), the assistant cook, serves as the voice of scepticism and upstairs, the role falls to Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the widowed son-in-law of the house, an Irishman. Whatever his political beliefs, however, his loyalty to Downton’s Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and the rest of the family is never in doubt.
Engler is in no hurry to get things under way. The film’s opening scenes are all about nostalgia. With a backward nod at the titles sequence of the first episode in the initial series, a train bearing news of the impending visit leaves a London station. Then, with volumes of steam billowing across the sky. it cleaves its way through an autumnal landscape as the series’ theme gradually rises to a crescendo. We’re back! it’s saying, and here’s hoping you’re as happy about it as we are.
The year is 1927. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is wearing a Louise Brooks bob and the costume department has excelled itself in ferreting out excquisitely beaded and embroidered fabrics of the period. Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley, however, is still firmly attached to her hats and she and her fellow dowager, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) are still trading barbs about their political and temperamental differences. They supply some of the film’s most pleasurable moments and there’s a brief but pivotal scene towards the end when Smith effortlessly elevates the tone and enriches the mood by showing what a great actor can do with just a few words.
Fellowes’ approach has grown more sentimental with age. When the series began in 2011, Lady Mary was a consummate snob but her sharp edges were gradually planed away and the same thing has happened to Barrow (Robert James-Collier), the butler, who began life as the downstairs villain. Over time, he’s acquired integrity, as well as eliciting our empathy as the only gay in the village. And in the film, all the Downton staff are united by a strong sense of camaraderie against the intractable arrogance of the Buckingham Palace interlopers. In comparison with their employees, the royals themselves qualify as egalitarians.
It’s not a perfect film but it’s a fond and fine farewell to a popular classic in the art of romancing the past.