The Downton Abbey Movie Proves This Was Always A Story About Women

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
Warning: Minor spoilers for the Downton Abbey movie ahead. 
The pilot episode of Downton Abbey opened with a crucial telegram being delivered to the house. The news that the Earl of Grantham’s cousin and his son have perished on the Titanic launches the quest to fill the vacuum of succession that fills much of that first season. It’s what leads Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to meet and fall in love with Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and eventually take over the running of the estate after his tragic death —  with a whole lot of stuff in between.
Echoing that pivotal moment, the Downton Abbey movie also kicks off with an important piece of mail: a royal letter, informing the family that the King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to stay. But the way that missive is delivered tells us just how much things have changed in the 15 years since. The 1912 telegram was delivered on a bicycle, to a house staffed with dozens of maids, footmen, under-thingies of the page of whatevers, ruled with an iron first by the indomitable butler, Carson (Jim Carter). This time, the letter travels by Royal Mail train from London, where it’s loaded onto a truck, and then handed to a postman who travels up the main drive on a motorbike, and finally delivered to Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who took over as butler in the series finale. Welcome to 1927. 
The film, which takes place over the course of the royal visit, with all the twists and turns one might expect from such upheaval (the silver must be polished! Rooms aired out! Ball gowns delivered!), forms a lovely and moving postscript to the beloved show, giving nods to its roots, but also looking towards the future. 
The early moments are devoted to setting the scene since the finale. Mary, still happily married to Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and with a new daughter in the nursery, is essentially running Downton on her own, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) having taken a backseat. Edith (Laura Carmichael), who’s gotten a major glow-up as Marchioness of Hexham, is running a huge property, and trying to reconcile herself to what it means to be married to a man in Bertie’s (Harry Hadden-Patton) position. (Wave goodbye to that cool job in publishing!) Tom (Allen Leech) is still waiting for that special someone, and running a car business with Henry. Isobel (Penelope Milton) is now Baroness Merton, having wed Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) towards the end of the final season, and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is as deliciously catty as ever. 
Downstairs, Anna (Joanna Froggat) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) have a little boy, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is steadfast as ever, and Mrs. Pattmore (Lesley Nicol) is a cranky delight. But all’s not quite the same. Thomas has mellowed, and even smiles every now and then, while Andy (Michael Fox) is pressing Daisy (Sophie McShera) to set a wedding date — something she’s resisting. 
But there’s been a clear leveling out of the playing field between high-born and low-born. Out of all the staff, Daisy is perhaps most indicative of shifting times — starting out as a kitchen maid, she’s moved up to assistant cook, passed her exams, and cut her hair into a sassy bob. She expects more from life than the generation before. She’s not impressed by the idea of a royal visit, unlike Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) who is rendered positively giddy at the thought of waiting on the queen. Only, that’s the rub — the royal servants have their own way of doing things, and the Downton staff, capable as they may be, aren’t included in those plans. 
Part of what makes this movie so fun is watching the family we’ve always seen as the dons of the county interact with those holding the highest status in the land. (Lady Mary curtsying! To! Someone! Else!) The servants drama is similarly amusing — give me Mrs. Hughes sparring with a nemesis housekeeper any day of the week! Carson, brought out of retirement by Mary much to Thomas’ dismay, is more than a match for his dour royal counterpart. And then there’s the treat of watching Smith spar with Imelda Staunton, who plays Lady Bagshaw, a cousin on the outs with the family over an inheritance issue, and the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. The acting is as solid as you remember, but Dockery and Smith stand out, especially in one tearful scene they share with each other. 
Downton has always been about spectacle, and the movie doesn’t disappoint. The production value has gotten a boost: the costumes are more dazzling than ever, and the sweeping shots of the estate and within the house itself highlight a grandeur appropriate for such pomp and circumstance. Director Michael Engler worked on several episodes in the final seasons, so the style feels continuous, an extension of the show, while still managing to tell a standalone story. Still, if you’ve never seen Downton Abbey before, you’re bound to be confused. Creator Julian Fellowes’ script is likewise familiar. The dowager countess’ zingers still zing, and the cheesy odes to the days gone by are still as ripe as camembert. It’s comforting to know that the world can spiral out of control, and Downton Abbey will still be concerned with whether or not to change for dinner. And then there’s the conveniently resolved issue of Carson’s illness, never to be brought up again even though it was debilitating enough to cause his retirement from service. 
There are some happy endings (Thomas, my absolute favorite — don’t judge me — makes a special friend!), and some bittersweet ones. We, like the characters we’ve grown to love, are saying goodbye to a way of life. And yet, there’s hope ahead. 

Without spoiling anything, a pivotal dramatic reveal crystallizes the idea that Downton Abbey isn’t just about passing the torch from generation to generation; it’s also centered around the rise of women, finally carving out a place for themselves in a world that wasn’t designed for them. In the first episode, it was unthinkable that Mary would ever play any real role beyond the glamorous wife of a peer. Now, she holds sway over the lives of an entire community, and what’s more, she cares! Her relationship with Anne, meanwhile, is far closer to confidant and friend than employer, employee. Lady Grantham, who nearly passed out at the thought of her daughter in bed with the Turkish attache, is now running a hospital and plotting and scheming with the best of them. Edith, once a wallflower, has the biggest job of them all, even if it’s not the one she would have chosen. And in just three decades, they’ll all be singing “God Save The Queen.”

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