Every film is made with a target audience in mind, for a — forgive my industry speak — key demographic of people that producers are trying to get into cinema seats. With most films that demographic is a vaguely defined cultural bloc: A24’s output is aimed at cinephiles, Disney live-action remakes are for nostalgic 30-somethings with kids, the MCU is (apparently) for everybody. Downton Abbey is that rare kind of film where you can identify with pinpoint precision exactly who it is made for. This is a film made exclusively for fans of the show.
Certainly, Julian Fellowes, the series show-runner and sole writer of this feature-length send-off, has earned the right to a certain amount of indulgence. During its run from 2010-2015, the series garnered widespread critical acclaim, grew a huge following, and won 57 awards — including multiple Emmy’s and Golden Globes — and earned an additional 219 nominations. That is already more than enough to justify this kind of splashy send-off. And absolutely, there are moments included purely for the pleasure of the fans, the film’s opening most notably.
Downtown Abbey begins with the journey of a letter from the heart of London through the English countryside to Downton. A shadow of the main theme begins to murmur as we track the journey of the letter via truck, train, and bicycle-riding postmen. First, we get just the soft twinkle of piano keys, then a few subdued notes from the string section of an orchestra, followed by the far-off hum the wind section. Only when the Abbey comes into sight for the first time — with a gorgeous aerial shot of the estate, showcasing the talents of cinematographer Ben Smithard — does the full orchestral version of the theme play. It is extravagant, and borders on ostentatious, but is exactly enough to make a fan giddy with excitement.
And for a moment it seems like that’s all the film intends to be, a gorgeous but hollow rehash of everything fans liked about the show. But Downton Abbey never devolves into pure fanservice. Instead, Downton Abbey proves that even in this, its twilight hours, it still has teeth. The themes of class, as explored through an upstairs-downstairs dynamic of Downton, are on full display, perhaps more-so than ever. We quickly find out that despite the series’ relatively rosy ending, life has gone on as usual.
As Downton’s roof needs repairs, farmers aren’t paying their rent, Mary (Michelle Dockery) is uncertain as to the future of the aristocracy, the kitchenhand Daisy (Sophie McShera) is hesitant to make solid plans for the future, and oh, also, the King and Queen are visiting Downton. Yes, after six seasons of the story that covered the sinking of the Titanic, World War One, extra-marital affairs, character deaths and everything in between, Downton Abbey finally tackles the Royal Family.
A delegation of palace servants arrives ahead of the King and Queen, and immediately ruffle feathers among Downton’s staff by pushing them out of their own jobs. Head Butler Thomas Barrow (Robert Hames-Collier) and head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), along with the rest of the servants, finds themselves supplanted by palace staff who all possess a stuffy and pompous attitude that would play like a parody on Saturday Night Live, except here, they’re one hundred percent serious. “Maybe I am a Republican”, quips Daisy after an interaction with a particularly terse cook, hinting at the larger ideas present in Downton Abbey. After six seasons Fellowes begins to look to the future, pondering the relevance of England’s Monarchical power structures in the modern world.
While one might expect Downton Abbey, the poster child for English aristocracy, to err firmly on the side of tradition, the conclusions it reaches is a little more complex. The film doesn’t have the space to let every idea breathe, it was never going to considering it also has to provide satisfactory resolutions to six seasons worth of narrative for over twenty characters plus newcomers, like Imelda Staunton’s Lady Bagshaw, the estranged sister of Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). But Downton Abbey, for all its period trappings, has always possessed a distinctly contemporary outlook, and that is no less true here. “It’s 1927, we’re modern folk”, proclaims Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) new husband Herbert Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton), with a cadence that can only be compared to a knowing wink. With the Great Depression just around the corner, it is hard not to feel that change is imminent, that the old ways are fading out.
Which traditions we fight to keep, and which we choose to let go is what Downton Abbey is about, a fitting theme for the last hurrah of a series dedicated to celebrating a bygone era. The film is definitely overstuffed, and the conclusions for certain characters feel rushed and half-baked, yet there is a certain gentleness in the way it all wraps up. Downton Abbey is less of a triumphant victory lap and more of a gentle stroll, a pleasant conversation of a film, reassuring you that it’s ok that things finish as long as you never forget the value they had. Downton Abbey is meant only for the fans, and if you’re not a diehard there’s really nothing for you to gain here. But for those diehard fans, it is the perfect end. Less a bombastic farewell and more a coy smile and tip of the hat, fitting for a series defined by its grace and composure.