Article by Diane Cleghane for Parade
On September 20, we happily return to the English countryside for a reunion with the Crawley family and their servants on the big screen. Have Lady Mary and Lady Edith made peace? How will the household handle a royal visit? Will Tom Branson ever find love again? Parade goes behind the scenes of the new movie to find out.
A Royal Affair
“Because there’s a royal visit, there is an enormous amount of fancy people in beautiful clothes celebrating,” says director Michael Engler. “The film feels familiar, but more magical.”
It has been four years since we last saw the Crawley family and their loyal staff in the beloved six-season PBS Masterpiece series. But onscreen, in the new movie written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Engler, a little more than a year has passed. “Julian has been very clever,” says Allen Leech, who plays former chauffeur, now family member Tom Branson. “[The story] has some breathing space, which means you can come back to these characters and see how they’ve developed over a period of time, but it’s not so vast that you feel you’ve lost touch with them.”
In fact, the year is 1927, and news that King George V and Queen Mary—Queen Elizabeth II’s grandparents—are coming to Downton upends the usual order of things in the Crawley household, which is now run with a pared-down staff. “The excitement over the visit is part of the engine of the film,” says Kevin Doyle, who portrays footman/schoolteacher Mr. Molesley. “It affects everyone. Most of the people are very enthusiastic about it, especially the servants. A royal visit would come once in a generation, if that.”
It’s no surprise that Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) is largely running the estate with Branson’s help. “Tom and Mary are the new custodians of the estate,” says Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert, the Earl of Grantham. “Robert and Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) generation are gently handing over the baton. In a sense, it becomes their world.” One plot twist: Lady Mary had been considering leaving Downton with her husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), to start a new life. Instead she takes charge of the preparations for the royal visit and asks former butler-in-chief Charles Carson (Jim Carter) to come out of retirement to oversee the details of the grand occasion. “He would do anything for Lady Mary,” says Carter. “She’s like a daughter to him and he’s only too happy to go back to the house to serve the king and queen.”
And no spoilers here—just a hint about a potential romance: “For anyone who rooted for Tom Branson in the show, they will be very happy,” says Leech.
“The biggest testament to the film is that everyone turned up to play,” says Bonneville. “We had some hurdles getting everyone in the same place at the same time, but there was a will to do it.” Even Maggie Smith is back. Despite having said she wasn’t in favor of a Downton movie (she told one interviewer, “I was firmly convinced [the movie] would start with [her character’s] funeral”), Smith returns as the redoubtable and infinitely quotable Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Executive producer Gareth Neame says the Oscar-winning actress was the last original cast member to sign on. “I suspect in a lot of ways, Maggie missed working with the other actors,” he says. “When she was completely sure everyone was going to do it and it was happening, then she was on board.”
Smith is joined by other regulars including Penelope Wilton (Lady Merton), Douglas Reith (Baron Merton), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Robert James-Collier (Mr. Barrow), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter) and Michael C. Fox (Andy). In addition to the familiar faces, there are also “some great new actors in leading parts,” says Neame. They include Simon Jones (King George V), Geraldine James (Queen Mary) and Imelda Staunton (Lady Bagshaw).
Reunited and It Feels So Good
“It sounds corny, but it really was like putting on a familiar sweater. What was most important [to me] was that the dynamic between the actors was as strong as it had been. We’d all left on such a good note, to revisit there was no strain,” says Bonneville.
While keeping their fingers crossed that the film would happen, the actors had moved on to other projects and shed their Downton personas. “For your own mental health, you have to let things go,” says Leech. When production on the film was set to start, the prospect of going back to recreate these characters seemed somewhat daunting—at least at first—for some of the actors.
“It was something we all worried about a little bit,” he says. He called Dockery to ask her how she felt about going back to the characters they hadn’t played in three years. “We both had the same worry until we got to the read-through,” he says. “Seeing each other and sitting down together with everyone—that was so familiar because we used to do that every year.”
“Enough time had passed for us to feel really nostalgic about being back together and being back on the set,” Dockery says. “It was wonderful.”
“The first downstairs scene we did was pretty much with the whole downstairs cast,” director Engler says. “At first, it just sounded like a bunch of people reading lines, and then we got it going and it clicked. Everybody sort of laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s right.’ They remembered what that particular [acting] company felt like.”
Like many other actors in the cast, Doyle found that the costumes, sets and locations all helped get back into character. “Just getting back into rather rigid costumes just made you stand a certain way,” he said. “The first morning of filming I went around the set by myself and just took it all in again. To go back to the servant’s hall and see those bells on the wall was thrilling.”
“It was like nothing had changed and no time had passed,” says Laura Carmichael (Edith, Marchioness of Hexham). “But at the same time, it was like going back to a previous life and revisiting a job that meant so much.”