The series—movie—stays the same, and yet the world around it rudely refuses to do so. Which leads me to this unfortunate thought: Has there ever been a worse time in British history for Downton to barge its way in with its betweeded elbows, kind hearts, and coronets? The memory of Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging on the green-leather benches of the House of Commons with the insouciant attitude of a pound-shop Bertie Wooster is still fresh in most people’s minds. The Eton-educated Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is presiding over arguably the most ineffectual, least democratic government in British history, which even his own cabinet members keep scuttling away from as the water lines rise. The establishment isn’t exactly shining in this specific blip on the timeline. And yet here Downton is, stuffed to the gills with good claret and Mrs. Patmore’s rissoles, ready to remind us that things worked better when everyone knew their place.
This is, the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes, would probably say, an unfair assessment of what Downton stands for. Over six seasons, the ITV drama (which aired on PBS in the United States) charted the changing fortunes of a British stately home and its residents. These included the members of the Crawley family, a genial, aristocratic clan cursed with three daughters, and their servants. Downton, Fellowes told The New York Times Magazine in 2011, was actually very egalitarian, in that it refused to portray the landed gentry as superior beings and the working classes as scurrilous wretches—or vice versa. “We treat the characters of the servants and the family exactly the same,” Fellowes said. “Some of them are nice, some of them are not nice, some of them are funny, some of them are not, but there is no division between the servants and the family to mark that.” By the show’s final episode, I wrote in 2016, Downton even seemed to be quietly signaling that it had been on the side of the proletariat all along.
Democracy! Not anymore. The Downton Abbey movie sacrifices all the seeds of social mobility it planted in Season 6 for what amounts to an anesthetizing fever dream, a hearty reassurance from Fellowes that you can, in fact, go home again, and that home might have electricity now but the green-baize door is as felted and impermeable as it ever was. Mrs. Patmore’s B&B? Forgotten. Daisy leaving domestic service to help her father-in-law with his farm? Never happened. Even Mr. Carson’s retirement is rudely interrupted by his borderline-inappropriate infatuation with Lady Mary, who shows up to request his help (for which he naturally will not be compensated) when the king and queen of England decide to pay a visit to Downton.
What follows looks, on the surface, like a comedy of errors involving haughty interlopers, an absurd assassination story line, missing silver, and a royal marital crisis. (Hmm.) The initial thrill among the servants of being allowed the honor of waiting on the royal family is punctured when the king’s servants arrive. If Fellowes graciously allowed his Downton domestics a handful of human qualities such as intelligence and charm, he concedes none whatsoever to the royal staff, who cuckoo their way into the household and kick the disgruntled Downton loyalists out of their nests. “Excuse me, I am not a butler,” huffs the king’s butler. “I am the king’s page of the back stairs.” The revolution has been euphemized.