Downton Abbey review – delightful and witty with tender moments and a surprise or two

Time waits for no-one, and it appears Downton Abbey will not be spared the changes that come with modern life. There may be a royal visit occurring, but all around we see the stirrings of social change. Among the family, issues such as the future of great estates and the responsibility of fathers are raised, whereas below stairs the servants are divided between those excited for a royal visit, and those questioning the need to have a King and Queen at all.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) is a perfect example of the gradual changes that have taken place at Downton, growing from a shy kitchen maid to a proud, confident young woman who questions everything from her engagement, to the worth of the royal family. Yet, she remains in the minority, as most of her colleagues are satisfied with the status quo, expressing excitement for the royal visit. Consequently, even as audience members are made aware of the changes taking place, they are simultaneously assured of the slow and minimal impact such change will have on Downton Abbey.

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Dame Maggie Smith shines as the Dowager Countess and fans will enjoy every moment of her time on screen. No scene with her is wasted, although her battles with Isobel (Penelope Wilton) are a particular treat. While all her lines entertain, it is her wicked one-liners that land the greatest punch, leaving audiences in stitches. There is no lack of laughs in this film, but Smith undeniably provides the most humour. As ever, she portrays the dignified, yet intimidating character of the Dowager Countess to a tee, however, it her more tender moments that are most gratifying. This is especially true of her interactions with Mary (Michelle Dockery), during which you sense the genuine affection and unspoken understanding between the two women.

Michelle Dockery is the other standout actress in this film, providing a convincing and sensitive portrayal of Lady Mary Crawley. A far cry from the Mary we were first introduced to in season one, the woman we meet now is determined and careful, battling between duty and her realistic nature. We witness her struggle to prepare for the royal visit, more burdened than excited, before learning of the troubles she is keeping close to her heart. Aware of the ever changing world outside the estate, she struggles to make a decision that will shape the very future of the Crawleys, and Downton Abbey with them. Her interactions with her family remind audiences of the woman we loved to watch on screen. Matured by life, love and grief, Mary has become a woman we are proud to see take on the baton of Downton, which is handed to her in one poignant moment with her grandmother. While all the familiar characters are likeable and determined, she expresses a love and loyalty for her family and dependents unlike any other character. She is willing to make the tough decisions, even when they are not popular, and believes in those around her, even when evidence suggests they have been misbehaving. Where Smith provides the humour, Dockery provides the heart, creating a rewarding experience for audiences.

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They are supported by an excellent cast, each of whom offer their own charm. This is fortunate since the writing of Downton Abbey does not stand up as well as the acting. While I have no complaint about the dialogue, the overall plot feels rather weak. We see the chaos that precedes the royal visit, both upstairs and downstairs, before the final showdown between household and royal staff, yet the whole thing fails to excite the audience in the way it should. You are left with a vague sense of interest, overcome by a stronger desire to get through the necessary plot twists so that you can return to the more interesting drama. That drama, as always, can be found in the relationships.

The Dowager Duchess’s grudge with Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), Lady Bagshaw’s relationship with her maid (Tuppence Middleton) and her maid’s friendship with Tom (Allen Leech) are all key plot points. As are the teetering relationships of established couples, including Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), and Daisy (McShera) and Andy (Michael Fox). The most interesting storyline in Downton Abbey undoubtedly belongs to Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who we see fully embrace his sexuality and open his heart to a new love interest. His character progression has been the greatest in the series, and it is a relief to see his story heading towards a happy ending. It’s not all roses though, as we are reminded of the struggles gay men of that time faced, with Barrow coming close to losing everything he’s achieved when he’s caught in a compromising situation. It is a stark reminder that while our characters are finding happiness in their own lives, not everyone was able to do so at the time.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Downton Abbey is certainly a film worth watching, but the question that persists is whether it’s a film that should be shown at the cinema at all. After watching the film I still have no answer. It was funny and entertaining, but offered no obvious reason for why the decision was made to screen it at cinemas rather than on our televisions. Indeed, it seems perfect material for a Christmas special. Perhaps it was for profit, perhaps to make the film’s release more of an event, either way fans will still spend their money to see the production, and I can’t say I blame them. I laughed, I cried, and I suspect you will as well.

Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.