In the new Downton Abbey movie, the title mansion is thrown into a tizzy when news arrives that the king and queen will pop by for a visit, although the imperious Lady Mary Talbot (formerly Crawley) receives the news without batting an eye.
This is not unusual, because Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) never bats an eye at anything, as far as I could tell as a casual fan of the show. The woman does not blink. She’s like a porcelain doll in a horror movie, which is why I always wondered about the Duesenberg crash that killed her first husband, Matthew (Dan Stevens).
Was it really an accident?
And what about that Turkish guy?
The woman doesn’t blink.
Grumbling Yankee malcontents will find other things to dislike about the show’s rose-colored depiction of entitled aristocracy and obsequious footmen, with servile kitchen staff dutifully lined up around a table and eating predawn porridge.
And yet the show’s soapy appeal is undeniable and durable and transatlantic, and the appearance of this new movie, drawn from the long-running PBS series, helps to clarify one of the reasons it is so popular.
Also, this is service — fan service — done on a level that Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) could appreciate and admire. Seen in this light, the fans of the show are the true aristocrats, and this handsomely mounted production exists to cater to their every whim — hitting the touchstones (gorgeous Jazz Age fashions, the pre-Twitter appeal of discourse bound by etiquette, Maggie Smith zingers) that satisfy fans while bringing multiple character arcs to a definitive close.
Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, the creative soul of the show, has delivered as a knottily plotted story as tasty (and probably as nourishing) as a Pimm’s Cup. King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will visit as they tour through Yorkshire, arriving with a lady-in-waiting (Imelda Staunton) who also has a claim to Crawley family riches prized by Dowager Countess Grantham (Smith). Their estrangement and maneuvering accounts for one of many plot threads, as does a fairly ridiculous assassination plot and various romantic entanglements. But these are not central to the conflict that drives the story and reinforces Fellowes’ fanciful conception of Downton as a mutually beneficial community, a microcosm of British society circa 1927.
The real drama is a staff-versus-staff smackdown that arises when the King’s personal entourage (haughty French chef, terrifyingly bossy pages and secretaries) announce that they will temporarily displace the Downton staff, whose members plan a quiet rebellion, lest they be robbed of a chance to have their worth and competence measured at the highest level.
The turmoil accompanying the royal visit takes its toll — not on the enthusiastic staff, but on the fraying aristocratic Crawleys. Lady Mary wonders if it’s all worth it — the expense, the responsibilities, the upkeep, the stress of having to find a servant to take care of your children (talk about wish fulfillment).
In this moment, she receives a pep talk from downstairs staffer Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who argues that Downton is a home, not just for the Crawleys but for all who live and work there, and the center of life for the region.
Surely there are those who will roll their eyes at this, but just as surely it helps explain why the show remains so popular in our age of chaos, of economic musical chairs that offers fewer and fewer seats when the music stops.
The idea of knowing your place may be offensive, but the idea of having a place is appealing.
Downton Abbey. Directed by Michael Engler. With Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Imelda Staunton, Joanne Froggatt, Geraldine James, and Simon Jones. Distributed by Focus Features.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Parents guide: PG (speaking out of turn)