As a person who has seen barely a flicker of Downton Abbey on television, I can’t predict whether the movie spin-off–directed by Michael Engler and written by the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes–will be everything longtime fans have hoped for. But as a one-off, it’s a featherweight delight, like the prettiest pink-and-white cake on the tea tray.
It’s 1927, and the denizens of Downton are in a tizzy: King George and Queen Mary are planning a trip through Yorkshire, and they’ll be stopping off for one night at the estate. They’re bringing all their own servants, which upsets the Downton staff, presided over by the ever-sensible Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan). But the impending visit sets off china-rattling reverberations throughout the rest of the household, too: Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), now in charge of managing the house, worries that everything will go wrong, and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), now happily married, has her own unexpected development to contend with. Meanwhile, peppery Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) squares off against a long-lost and equally stubborn relative, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton); sweet, dithery Isobel Grey (Penelope Wilton) ends up running interference.
Intrigue, romantic travails and plain old stress rule the day, both upstairs and downstairs, and Fellowes and Engler keep all the gears running smoothly. But come now–you really came here to find out about the gowns and the jewels, didn’t you? Liquid-velvet day dresses in period-perfect shades of burnt coral and tobacco, ropes of Venetian glass beads in undersea-fantasia colors, a faintworthy deep-blue Fortuny pleated evening gown: the costumes, by Anna Robbins, are spectacular. You wouldn’t really want to be a member of the aristocracy–it’s a lot of bother. But gazing at these lives from afar is a gentle pleasure, and one you shouldn’t feel guilty about.
This appears in the September 30, 2019 issue of TIME.
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