Do you Downton?
If so, then you’re in luck. The enormous cast of characters and the fancy-pants mansion from PBS’ “Downton Abbey” have returned, this time in theaters, and the movie is just about everything a fan of the TV series could hope for. The degree of difficulty is high, since there’s no guarantee that TV smashes can make the transition to a two-hour format and since so many characters are involved that not everyone gets their own soapy subplot. But “Downton” sticks the landing as confidently as a butler silently settling a tray of watercress sandwiches onto a Chippendale table.
The movie’s opening tracks a letter as it is written, carried and ultimately delivered to Downton — and the minute the show’s stately musical theme kicked in as someone walked the gravel path to the mansion, I was hooked.
It’s 1927 and, to the extent that the movie could be said to have a plot, it’s about what goes on in the house as it prepares to host King George V and Queen Mary, who are popping in for a swank dinner. They’re accompanied by snooty servants, including a dude who, when the Downton staff assumes he’s the king’s butler, replies, “I am not a butler! I am the king’s page of back stairs.” If you’re the sort of person who thinks there aren’t nearly enough curtsying marchionesses in the movies, you’re in luck.
The show’s persnickety attention to detail continues in the movie, as does its interest in what’s going on upstairs and downstairs. The movie leans more heavily toward the servants’ area, with gay butler Thomas Barrow pitching a fit when he learns he’s to be usurped and heading off in search of one of three sweet little romances that “Downton Abbey” nurtures. Quite a bit of the movie has to do with the Downton staff mutinying because they want to be the ones to cook for and serve the royals. Only on “Downton” would it be considered a victory for the seemingly vacationless servants to win a chance to do more work for the layabouts upstairs.
Julian Fellowes, who created the series and won an Oscar for the “Gosford Park” screenplay that helped inspire it, glides back into writing for these indelible characters, whether it’s the tradition-at-all-costs blustering of former butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the clipped efficiency of the nicer-than-she-used-to-be Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) or the reliably withering barbs of the imperious Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who sprinkles drops of acid all over the lush movie, in the same way that a dash of lemon juice can enliven a rich pasta.
They’re the same performances you remember from the series, only 20 feet tall, so it’s the ones with the most screen time who register strongest. Robert James-Collier’s Barrow has a wistful moment that seems to look ahead a century to a time when a gay man won’t have to live his life in secret. After years of dutiful widowhood, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) gets to hope for more. And, as always, Smith is the tart-tongued MVP who, if she can’t say something nice about somebody, comes right out and says something vicious.
Certainly, “Downton” isn’t for moviegoers who are allergic to corsets (Hi, Dad!), and it probably won’t mean much to you if you didn’t watch the TV version, since it picks up where the series left off, with no “previously on ‘Downton Abbey’ ” to fill you in. But if you did watch the show, you’re gonna wanna watch the movie, which works as an answer to the privileged Dowager Countess’ most famous line, “What is a weekend?” It’s the thing that’s happening now, and you should use it to watch this movie.
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG, for thematic elements.