During its six-season run on PBS’s “Masterpiece,” the beloved manor-and-manners drama “Downton Abbey” looked ever more to themes about the landed aristocracy’s future prospects. For all of the Crawley family’s moneyed fabulosity, doubt crept in regularly as to whether their regal English estate and its attendant culture were sustainable amid a fast-changing interwar landscape. As privileged-yet-savvy Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) wondered in particular, did the Crawleys and their dedicated servants have a place in the world anymore?
Obsolescence is again on characters’ minds in “Downton Abbey” the feature film, a thoroughly satisfying follow-up that arrives in theaters not quite four years after the series finale aired. You didn’t suppose the grand old house would be allowed to get dusty? Not with meticulous Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) still on the job, along with kindheartedly attentive Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan); service’s sweethearts, Anna and Mr. Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle); and all those other dutiful staffers. And not with Crawley matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) still alive, kicking, and keeping them all on their toes.
Cleverly, though, the movie’s writer, series creator Julian Fellowes, finds an unexpected new layer to trowel onto all the displacement angst. Suffice it to say that being faced with irrelevance sure can be a royal pain.
So what “Downton” story could only be told on the big screen? Fans breathlessly asking the question were informed months ago that — breach-of-etiquette alert! — the film features a visit by King George V and Queen Mary. But this wasn’t giving away quite everything.
Fellowes and director Michael Engler (continuing on from the finale) don’t seem hugely interested in monarchial pageantry. Their focus is on their familiar ensemble’s collective anticipation, the veddy British sense of pride that swells within them throughout the experience. With the exception, perhaps, of Irish chauffeur-turned-aristocrat Tom Branson (Allen Leech) — but his evolving politics are thoughtfully re-examined here, as is the peace he’s made with his widower status.
While “Downton” is of course handsomely designed, a military parade led by the king is among scenes that are light on spectacle. There’s nothing as expansive as, say, season two’s tour of the Great War trenches. Instead, truly cinematic production values are reserved for glossy establishing shots of the manor, and for close-ups of antique tureens and other special-occasion silver that make them look like they could sink the Titanic.
But the modest scale works. There’s a wonderfully captured sweetness to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), quietly sharing their star-struck excitement. And when a chunk of the household is confronted with the distressing possibility of missing out on a royal audience, their depth of feeling for the sovereigns drives them to some diverting, spoiler-proof extremes. (The movie doesn’t connect any dots, but we can see why the prospective diss would be especially galling to the Downton set, with all the hang-ups they’ve already got about being shunted aside by the times.)
The biggest narrative justification for “Downton” getting feature treatment might be the sweeping quality to all the character developments and showcase moments being juggled here. The intricacy is managed without ever playing like Fellowes took a couple of routine postscript episodes and simply stitched them together.
The script also does nice work getting the band back together. Only head cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) appears to be chucking continuity, and that B&B she started. But if that’s what it takes to get her sassy dynamic with Daisy (Sophie McShera) back on the menu, so be it.
Otherwise, it’s all organic enough, from the un-retirements of Carson and jittery former charge Molesley (comic-relief MVP Kevin Doyle) to forever-overlooked Crawley daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) popping back in for the big ’do. Edith also does some racy bloomers modeling, which might be our ooh-la-la Mr. Pamuk Moment, if not for a sequence with identity-tormented Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) going clubbing. But, oh, let’s not be glib — James-Collier delivers his most affecting scenes yet as a gay man of the day searching to find himself.
Violet and Isobel (Penelope Wilton), her earthy cousin and social sparring partner, are likewise gamely back at it, with another relation, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), joining the fray in a slightly confusing inheritance squabble. We’ve never been so thankful for drawing-room exposition. We also appreciate the casting boost that Staunton (“Vera Drake”; Dolores Umbridge, in the “Harry Potter” movies) lends the proceedings; character actors Simon Jones and Geraldine James have the bearing for George V and his queen, but they hardly provide the oomph that, say, Shirley MacLaine brought to her season-three stint as Cora’s mother.
But then, Dame Maggie just gets that much more opportunity to shine. One of the film’s most poignant scenes is a final-act tête-à-tête between modern gal Mary and her dear granny about all that the two have in common. It’s a comforting end note about what might lie ahead, both for Downton the house and “Downton” the franchise.
★ ★ ★ ½
Directed by Michael Engler. Written by Julian Fellowes. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton. Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, Somerville, suburbs. 122 mins. PG (thematic elements, some suggestive material, language).