Downton Abbey review: “I’ve never watched a Downton episode, but here’s my honest review of the movie”

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The Downton Abbey film is released on Friday 13 September, offering some much-needed light relief in these anxiety-inducing times.     

Full disclosure: I have never watched an episode of Downton Abbey in my life. While I’m at it, I might as well confess that I’ve never watched The Crown, either. I guess I’m just not partial to a PG period drama, unless I’m knee-deep in Quality Street wrappers at Christmas.

So, when I accepted an invitation to watch the Downton Abbey film, I didn’t know what to expect. But as my plus one turned out to be one of the 6.9 million people who tuned into the last TV episode in 2015, I quickly became fully prepared to accept that I might just fall for Downton’s charms. 

Despite this, I wondered if I could ever really enjoy a film that is simply about the King and Queen visiting a household? If national treasure Dame Maggie Smith’s starring role would be enough to keep me entertained for two hours? And would I need to be a Downton Abbey fan to like the film?

The film’s plot really is as straightforward as it sounds. Set two years after the TV series ended, in 1927, the residents and staff of Downton Abbey are thrown into a frenzy by an upcoming royal visit by King George V and Queen Mary. And… 

Well, and that’s it. That’s the story. But really, this simple plot was just there to drive through a mix of heart-warming and often humorous subplots with some wonderful characters that I was quite glad to meet. Sure, some of the more cliché and ridiculous moments raised a few eye-rolls, but each story was (thankfully) packaged up neatly and quickly.

Writer Julian Fellowes also tackles issues that still relevant today, such as homophobia, conflicting political ideologies and the struggles of motherhood. It’s just a pity that he ties these up without properly exploring them. But then again, I’m not really visiting Downton for the hard stuff, right? 

Smith is, of course, on top form as a sharp-tongued and quick-witted Violet Crawley. “Someone must, sir… or I may never rise again,” she replies when the King asks if she needs help standing back up after a curtsey. And watching her cheekily bounce off fellow screen heroes Imelda Staunton (Lady Bagshaw) and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) causes some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.  

Downton Abbey the film is a visual feast for the eyes.
Downton Abbey movie: Maggie Smith returns as Violet Crawley.

There’s also a tender scene between Violet and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), which sees the dowager countess softening to tell her grand-daughter that she is “the heart and future” of Downton. It even brought a few silent tears to this sceptical reviewer’s eye.

But what sucked me in, if only for a couple of hours, was the attention to detail. Although the episode is just like an extended episode of a TV drama, I can’t deny that exploring Downton for the first time on a big screen was a bit therapeutic. From the polishing of royal silver, to the rotation of beautiful 1920s gowns and the bumbling boom of the theme music – it’s a soothing watch. 

So, can a non-Downton fan enjoy the film? Yes. But only as a one off. And probably from the comfort of the sofa on a slightly hungover Sunday. 

The film is a bit like a smile-raising warm hug from an old aunt who you only see on Boxing Day: nostalgic, wholesome, comforting and something you only enjoy once a year with an accompanying glass of Baileys. 

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