I will happily concede that Downton Abbey, the motion picture, does not present itself as a fans-only experience. It does not assume you have seen any or all of Downton Abbey, the 2010-2015 television series (as I have not: the unanimous opinion of every person in my life who has seen it - Series 1 is good, Series 2 is bad, Series 3 and onward are complete trash - has not been any kind of encouragement), but it also does not belabor its exposition. It just tells a story with characters and it all pretty much makes sense, and you can figure it out pretty easily as it goes.

We could say that this is a bit of good writing by Julian Fellowes, the creator of the series as well as this film's screenwriter. We could also say that this is because he has not come up with one plot point that isn't a groaning cliché, nor one character who isn't a smudgy cartoon stereotype, so it doesn't take much explanation to figure out what's going on. The dialogue, especially in the early going, before one gets worn down by it, sounds like a parody of interwar period pieces more than a sincere example of one, with a limited attempt at era-appropriate terminology that mostly ends up feeling brittle, while everybody voices the most brutally straightforward sentiments imaginable.

The film picks up in the late 1920s, when the Crawley family, led by Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has started to seriously feel the impact of modernity on the elegant life of the landed gentry, even with their family estate of Downton Abbey remaining the center of the economic activity in a small Yorkshire town. But that only becomes a plot point in, like, two scenes. For the rest of the movie, the age of aristocracy is still going strong, with King George V (Simon Jones) sending word that he and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be making a tour of Yorkshire, and wish to stay for a night at Downton. This gets everybody excited and terrified, and very nearly all of the film consists of watching the Crawleys and their servants working themselves into a frazzle getting ready for the royals, and then enjoying their company.

It is difficult to imagine less compelling dramatic stakes, though as far as "watch the inner works of a country estate in a moment of crisis" stories go, Downton Abbey is a perfectly fine procedural. There's a lot of annoying, bothersome hoops that have to get jumped through, and several officious royal representatives to be barely tolerated, and right about the point that eldest Crawley daughter Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) has to arrange for the folding chairs to be set up for the next morning's parade despite an awful rainstorm turning the Downton grounds into a swamp, it's kind of fun to watch this as a generic story of the horrible exhaustion of having to do event planning, compounded by the impression that one is meant to be very honored to be saddled with hosting. The thing is, this isn't a procedural, at least not primarily. It is a big character piece, in which a tremendous number of cast members both upstairs and downstairs are confronted with little and big life-changing events - it was designed, obviously, as a series finale, though its stunning box office suggest has raised the possibility that this will now become a theatrical franchise, Star Trek-style. In fact, yes, I would go right for it and call it the Downton Abbey equivalent of Star Trek: Generations, right down to how slightly awful the presumably-beloved characters all are, and how it has an unshakable whiff of TV-sized cheapness despite looking for all the world like they really did try to scale it up for a cinema screen.

For that is where I was heading. Downton Abbey is, ultimately, a character piece, and it's not a good one. It offers the illusion of being good, mostly because a large portion of the cast has lived in these characters' heads for so long that you can tell that they just intuitively, instinctively know how exactly to move and react and think, and there's a richness that comes from that level of intimacy that not even the worst writing can smother. And this isn't the worst writing, though I have come to find Fellowes a pretty irritating writer; his only absolute great project is 2001's Gosford Park (also an Upstairs, Downstairs knock-off, though one that has the good sense to add a real plot in the form of a murder mystery), and of course it's worth noting that Gosford Park was directed by Robert Altman, a filmmaker not noted for excessive fidelity to his screenplays. Even so, Downton Abbey is more functional than bad, though it is at times not especially functional. It feels, God forgive me for being so obvious as to say it, like ten episodes of television maniacally stuffed into 122 minutes of feature film; incidents that would clearly be the driving plot for an entire hour of leisurely storytelling are here brought up, clucked over, and resolved all within five or ten minutes. It's rushed and stately at the same time, and more in a way that's irritating than fascinating. This is especially true during its indecent hurry to get from the arrival of the king's letter to the arrival of the king's entourage: we go from "two weeks" to "this Thursday" to "tomorrow" in what feels like a not-especially-frenzied afternoon.

The more upsetting fault is that Fellowes has done almost nothing to give his characters any especially interesting inner lives. The two places he comes closest are with Tom Branson (Allen Leech), widow of the Crawleys' youngest daughter, who is finding it increasingly hard to balance his affection for the family with his republican politics and Irish nationalism; and Daisy (Sophie McShera), the assistant cook, who also has republican politics, though they are not so intense. It is perhaps telling that the best characters are the republicans; it means they have internal conflicts to think about. In the main, Downton Abbey is content to be pure nobility porn, with the downstairs staff almost uniformly content to shunt their own personalities into the ash bin so that they can serve the rich folks. This is morally lousy, but even worse, it's dramatically inert; it means that fully half of the cast has no kind of emotional life. And the upstairs half of the cast mostly has simple, trite emotional lives. For example, it may be a great pleasure to watch living icon Dame Maggie Smith play a judgmental, paranoid old control freak; but it is not in the slightest degree surprising to see Dame Maggie Smith play a judgmental, paranoid old control freak. One might go so far as to say that if you have ever once seen Dame Maggie Smith do absolutely anything, you can predict every single beat and every single line reading she has to offer anywhere in this film.

On top of its dreary screenplay, Downton Abbey isn't even terribly great nobility porn. It has fantastic costumes, to be sure, a nice mix of the stately, the '20s-chic, and the storybook. And Highclere Castle, playing Downton, is a gorgeous pile of huge hallways and ornate arches. But it's been shot in a fairly conventional way, all heavy contrast and moody shadows, or the exteriors in exhaustively dappled afternoon sun. And this applies regardless of what the mood of the film seems to want: even when it's trying to be playful, the film looks so achingly serious that it feels a bit indecent to smile at it. Plus, it's really just edited for shit, refusing to do more than loosely establish eyelines and spatial relationships - in a film that's full of people sitting and talking! - and indulging in some brazenly bad cross-cutting, with one climactic scene moving back and forth between two locations without drawing any parallels between them at all. It's just establishing, yep, these are happening at the same time, like it's 1914, and we're still not even sure what the hell cross-cutting is, let alone how to do anything even vaguely artful with it.

This is the point at which the critic is meant to place the sentiment, "Still, fans of the series are sure to enjoy it". And I don't doubt they will, and they are fucking welcome to it.