Don’t worry if you didn’t follow the award-winning ITV-PBS series, “Downton Abbey,” over the six seasons (2010-2015) and 52 episodes that began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ended in 1926 with the rise of the working class. The film uses the much beloved butler, Charles Carson (Jim Carter), in voiceover to bring us up-to-date with essential bits about the characters–with a little help from his wife, Elsie Carson (Phyllis Logan), who began the series as the trustworthy Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper.
During the last season, Carson had retired, bowing out to a grateful and redeemed Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier). But, as you’ve surely heard in the trailer, King George V is coming to Downton Abbey.
King George V’s reign began in 1910. He was the grandson of Queen Victoria and the second son of Edward VIII. His elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, had died of influenza, leaving him the heir to the throne and husband to his intended bride, Princess Mary of Teck. George and Mary would have six children: Edward, George, Mary, Henry, George and John. Edward would briefly ascend to the throne only to abdicate to marry Wallis Simpson to become the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. George would then become George VI and father the current queen, Elizabeth II.
Edward is mentioned but unseen in the film, but Mary is portrayed in the movie as unhappily married to the Earl of Harewood. When they married in 1922, she was 24 and he, then Lord Lascelles, was 39. By the time of this film (1927), they had two sons, George born in 1923 and Gerald, born in 1924.
Carson married Mrs. Hughes during Series/Season 6 Episode 3. Carson was forced to retire as butler during the finale (September 1925 to 1 January 1926) as a result of palsy, with Thomas Barrow taking over his place. Upstairs, when Barrow left, his return had already suggested by Mary because of her son’s great affection for Barrow. Mary married race car driver Henry Talbot in August 1925 and by the end of the year, was pregnant. Henry and his brother-in-law Tom had gone into the car selling business together. Edith and Bertie were married on Christmas Eve 1925. Anna and Bates had a healthy son during the finale.
Beginning a year after the finale, the movie follows a letter from Buckingham Palace to Downton Abbey, and intercuts with a mysterious man who boards a train to the village nearest Downton. The Royal Mail delivers the letter by motor car. The letter is given to the footman Andy (Michael C. Fox) and then to the butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) who passes it on to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). Robert is downstairs with his eldest daughter, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and his son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech).
This echoes the first episode of the series that opened with an urgent telegraph message about the sinking of the Titanic. When the newspapers reach Downton, they are late and William Mason (Thomas Howes) receives them and points out the news to the butler Carson (Jim Carter). In a future episode, William dies from injuries suffered during World War I, after he married Daisy in 1918 (Series/Season 2 Episode 5). In the movie, Andy (Michael C. Fox) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) are engaged.
In the first episode, when Robert goes to the breakfast table, he already has heard the news and speaks briefly with Carson before sitting down to read the Times. Edith and Mary join him. Sybil follows soon after taking a telegram from Barrow and presenting it to her father. After reading it, Robert goes immediately upstairs to speak with his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who is in bed reading her newspaper. The telegram announces that Robert’s cousin and his cousin’s son, Robert’s heir, were on the Titanic and not among the survivors.
In the series, the man riding a train turns out to be John Bates (Brendan Coyle) upon whom much of the downstairs angst turns throughout the series. Bates served with Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) during the Boer War as batman (a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal servant) and suffered an injury there. Although he was not initially well-received by the household, Bates and Anna (married during Series/Season 2 Episode 8) do get acquainted and by the end of Series/Season 1, pull a trick on Thomas Barrow and Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran).
In the movie, the man on the train is Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell) and he’s keenly interested in Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the widower of Robert Crawley’s youngest daughter Sybil. Branson is a Republican and more interested in a government run by elected officials as opposed to a monarchy, even a constitutional one. What will that mean to the royal visit?
During Season/Series 2 Episode 3, Branson wanted to humiliate dinner guest General Herbert Strutt (Julian Wadham) by pouring a tureen of not-quite-soup, but Anna and Carson grab a tureen from Branson’s hands and take him downstairs. During Season/Series 3 Episode 4, Branson must flee Ireland (leaving a pregnant Sybil behind). Branson had been part of the protesting crowd who pulled the aristocratic family from their grand house. The sight of it made him ashamed, but his fellows burned down the house.
The topic of the first episode (Season/Series 1 and most of the following seasons) was inheritance. With Patrick dead, Cora’s dowery could not be extricated from the estate and title. The title can only go to a male heir, but that heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), won’t appear until the last few minutes.
Inheritance is also an issue in the film. Queen Mary’s Lady-in-Waiting, the widowed Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), did not have children with her husband and has not remarried. Yet because Lady Bagshaw refuses to acknowledge Robert as her heir, Violet (Maggie Smith) and the rest of the Crawleys have not associated with her. Queen Mary’s one-night stay at Downton Abbey with her Lady-in-Waiting provides Violet (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess of Grantham, an opportunity to corner her and attempt to settle the inheritance issue in Robert’s favor. Violet tells Robert, she will make Bagshaw look at Robert “as the son she never had,” and yet Robert wonders, “Will I see her as the mother I never had?”
The royal visit causes great excitement in the village; Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle), now a teacher at the Downton School, returns eagerly to the estate as a footman. He’s done that before on special occasions when they needed extra staff. The servants are excited until the Royal Staff arrives and the King’s Page of the Backstairs (Don’t call him the Royal Butler!) inform them that the downstairs staff will not be involved in any of the preparations. The royal staff will include the dressers, a chef and footmen.
Mary, feeling that “Barrow looked like rabbit before a cobra,” calls for Carson who comes out of retirement. Feeling displaced, Barrow steps down in an outburst that surprises Mary who, after Barrow has gone, asks her father if he will sack Barrow, but Robert is impressed by Barrow’s integrity. How much has changed since Series/Season 1.
Yet even Carson will be befuddled by the arrogance and insistence on an adherence to order by the royal staff, but Anna and Bates have a plan. The royal visit will also inspire romance both upstairs and downstairs and further romances already in place.
The film “Downton Abbey” doesn’t attempt to be more than a special episode of the series. It covers about a month of time, introducing a few new characters while embracing the old. While I felt sorry that Barrow didn’t have a chance to shine in his new position, I still felt hopeful about the development of his story line. A royal visit also means the cast is out in their best costumes and the characters are required to make many costume changes and there is a splendidly romantic waltz scene at a grand ball. Ending as it starts with Carson and his wife, there’s a feeling of both a fond farewell and a happy reunion. Well done.