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The Downton Abbey movie is all about the existential horrors of wealth

How very 2019.

The Crawley family arriving at the house in a roadster in the movie “Downton Abbey.”
The Crawleys have returned.
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The advertising for the new Downton Abbey movie showed up in my subway station in August and I suppose it fulfilled its purpose: The first time I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks.

The show’s “upstairs, downstairs” structure — it tells stories of both the Crawleys, an upper-class British family, and the working-class servants who keep their estate running — was made literal by a poster split into two echelons, with all of the characters filed away neatly into their appropriate hemisphere. Daisy the spunky cook? Lower half. Lady Mary? Upper half. Carson the imperious butler? Downstairs. Lord Grantham? Upstairs, of course.

And though the poster seems unmistakably Photoshopped into being — given the size of Downton’s cast, getting everyone into the same room is probably impossible — the images weren’t what made me pause on my way to the train. That honor belongs to the tagline, rendered in elegant serif capitals:


I understand what it’s trying to do. It’s been more than three years since March 6, 2016, when Downton Abbey’s series finale aired in the US, and the tagline implies that not only have fans been eager to return to the title estate but that the characters have been frozen in time (1926, to be exact), waiting for the fans. But none of the characters are smiling and most are wearing black tie, which gives the line an ominous air. We’ve been expecting you.

The Downton Abbey movie poster shows the servants in the lower half of the poster and the gentry in the upper half.
Upstairs, downstairs.
Focus Features

Still, it’s not like anyone’s brandishing a knife. I might not have found the poster so arresting if I hadn’t just seen Ready or Not, a just-okay but cathartic horror film with a poster that, at a glance, looks like it could have been generated in the same factory. Ready or Not is set in the present, and it’s about a very wealthy family with a handful of servants of their own and a massive house whose hidden hallways keep the help out of view of the family. It’s about a murderous game of hide-and-seek, but it’s also about greed.

In Ready or Not, a woman who grew up in foster care marries into the wealthy family. She’s different from them, as one member of the family remarks to another, because she “has a soul”; she’s also lighthearted, funny, and warm, unlike most of the family. And she soon discovers that due to a horrific family tradition, she’ll spend her wedding night being chased by her weapon-toting new relatives in an attempt to survive. (They, meanwhile, are convinced that if she lives, the devil himself will kill them all. It’s fun!)

Just like Ready or Not, both Downton Abbey the show and Downton Abbey the movie contain key plot points that revolve around characters who try to make the transition from downstairs to upstairs, or wish they could. The most notable is Tom the Irish chauffeur (Allen Leech), who elopes with the family’s youngest daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). They later return to the estate; and while Sybil dies tragically in childbirth in season three, Tom spends the rest of the series making the slow journey from deeply suspect son-in-law to trusted and beloved family member.

Tom is also a central character in the movie. Though the film’s story isn’t especially coherent — it’s more of a sequence of attempts to tie up various character storylines — the big plot has to do with the announcement that the King and Queen will be spending the night at Downton Abbey during their Yorkshire tour. A bustle of preparations ensues.

There’s a range of opinions about the monarchy on Downton’s staff, but Tom is the only member of the family who isn’t English, and furthermore, he has a history as a pro-Irish revolutionary. Some at the estate are concerned that he might try to disrupt the royal visit. He fits into the family but he’ll never truly be a Crawley unless he can amass some wealth of his own. And given what often happens to outsiders and those who don’t come from money in so many movies set in houses like Downton Abby, that’s more scary than it seems.

Downton Abbey is one of many films and TV shows this year that explore the dangers of inherited wealth

Tonally, Ready or Not and Downton Abbey couldn’t be more different. One is a violent revenge comedy/horror hybrid; the other is an unfailingly polite historical family drama. Downton Abbey is also nothing like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, an upcoming film that takes place in a big house inhabited by a rich family that plays like a wickedly funny Agatha Christie murder mystery. (Big jokes in both Ready or Not and Knives Out hinge on the fact that while the wealth in these families is inherited, they’re “new money” compared to families like the Crawleys.)

This trio joins other meditations on money, inheritance, privilege, and family that have made waves in 2019. The highly praised Parasite, which won the top prize at Cannes, isn’t about a rich family in a big house, but it does take on the “upstairs, downstairs” frame, exploring, as Downton Abbey did during its TV run, the consequences that class disparities can have on individual lives. And HBO’s hit show Succession vacillates between tragedy and comedy in showing how the adult children of a media mogul (modeled on Rupert Murdoch) are both enabled and trapped by their family’s wealth.

And by the end of Downton Abbey, I wondered if that’s really what that film is about, too. It’s calculated to satisfy the TV show’s biggest fans, (who have responded in kind, catapulting the movie to a record $31 million opening weekend). It’s sweet, fluffy, and satisfying, particularly if you don’t harbor any strong feelings about the monarchy and the role of wealth and class in Britain.

But it also has some of the same preoccupations as Ready or Not, Knives Out, Parasite, and Succession, though it doesn’t seem as self-aware. One thread in Downton Abbey has to do with the increasing difficulty of keeping the estate running. It’s a big old house with lots of problems that simply have to do with being big, old, and a house. The staff is dwindling and so are the funds. The boiler breaks. And for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who stands to inherit the property and is already managing the estate, the prospect of keeping it all going into the future is not appealing.

Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery sit by the fireplace and drink tea in the “Downton Abbey” movie.
Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.
Focus Features

Near the end of the film, she tells her lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) that she’s been thinking of leaving Downton, selling the house (which, she notes, would make a fine school or home for the elderly), and moving the family to a more modest home with easier upkeep.

Anna reacts in horror and tells Mary that the Crawley family simply must stay on at Downton because Downton is the heart and soul of the community around it. Without the Crawleys, the town will not have a center of gravity. So all of the expense is worth it. Mary listens to Anna, then nods and seems to have answered the question for herself.

My ears are American, so Anna’s speech made me raise an eyebrow. But putting class politics aside, the film’s implications are clear: Mary is a Crawley, and the Crawleys live at Downton Abbey, and so she must live at Downton Abbey, too. It’s her duty. She cannot get away. It is, in its own way, a lovely and comfortable prison.

Tom, too, is drawn into the house, albeit in a different way. Later in the film, explaining how he feels about the Crawleys and the monarchy, he says that he doesn’t agree with the family’s loyalty to the King and Queen but he loves the family because they are good people. And so he supports them and what they support, and he stops acting on his own principles. I confess I found this logic a little sad, if only because Tom was a bracing presence on the TV show early on when it leaned more into social commentary and less into the melodrama of its later seasons.

But Tom’s and Mary’s stories parallel one another, and they made me wonder, in the end, if Downton Abbey doesn’t share the same sentiment, however unconsciously, as this year’s horror films and murder mysteries and vaguely Shakespearean dramas: that family wealth — often embodied specifically by a house — can be a kind of imprisonment of its own, something that can trap you, blind you, change you, eat you alive.

Downton Abbey is the least self-conscious of this year’s films about its implicit theme

It’s always interesting to observe which messages the movies cluster around in a given year, and some of 2019’s most celebrated films — from all over the world — have been particularly occupied with inequality, disparity, and revolt. Downton Abbey feels the least concerned with this theme, probably because it’s really more of a feature-length series finale than a movie with something to say.

Downton Abbey has also been more interested in letting audiences dwell in its world than in asking them to think too critically about it — not because it’s never critical but because all of its stories, no matter how sad or dramatic, eventually have their happy ending. The Crawleys are nothing like the families of Knives Out or Ready or Not or Parasite or Succession. They are always good and gentle and kind employers. And at Downton, people tend to chafe at first but then come to terms with life the way it is. At times, they seem lulled into complacency.

Which strikes me as a little frightening, even if it’s the point of this world. At the end of the film, Lady Mary is dancing with her husband Henry (Matthew Goode) and asks him if he’d ever thought of leaving Downton.

“I think we’re stuck with it,” he says with a smile. When she smiles back it’s in agreement but not without some apprehension.

Meanwhile, it’s Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the estate’s head butler and head housekeeper, who are able to walk. They leave through the front door, with Carson speculating that in 100 years — roughly 2026 — Downton Abbey will still be there and the Crawleys will still inhabit its halls. Mrs. Hughes pushes back but it’s the end of the film. Carson’s picture of a rosy future is what’s left ringing in our ears.

Carson leaves Downton Abbey.
Carson leaves Downton Abbey.
Focus Features

In a sense, he’s right. Most of the “great houses” in Britain were demolished or turned into other institutions by the middle of the 20th century, often because their owners lacked the money required to operate them. However, Highclere Castle, the real-life location where Downton Abbey was filmed, is still occupied at times by the family that owns it — and they have recently been able to start major repairs, but only because of money brought in by visitors coming to see the Downton Abbey house.

It’s close enough to 2026. If the ghosts of the Crawleys haunt the house, it might be because they could never really get away.

Downton Abbey opened in theaters on September 20.