Interview by Joe Heim
Ah, Downton Abbey. We missed you so. Has it really been just four years since you left? Feels like ages. A lot has happened since then. Britain wasn’t bickering over Boris and Brexit when you arrived in 2010 (or even when you called it a day in 2015). And America was not yet locked in its forever spitball war between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces. Maybe it was an illusion — of course it was an illusion — but the planet seemed more gentle when Downton was king.
And so we’ve become nostalgic for its nostalgia. Misty-eyed too, for a simpler time free of cold brew coffee, electric scooters and Twitter. An arms-wide-open welcome, then, for “Downton Abbey” the movie, which hits theaters Friday and not a moment too soon. Escapism, sweet escapism, may just be what the world needs now.
Hugh Bonneville, who plays the family patriarch Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in the series and the new movie, said he experienced the healing powers of Downton when he sat down to watch the movie a few weeks ago at an early screening.
“As the music started, I just could feel my shoulders relax and I thought, ‘We’re going somewhere that is a kinder place than we are in now,’?” Bonneville, wearing a smashing three-piece suit, said in an interview last week at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. (You thought an earl would stay at Red Roof Inn?) “I think that was probably one of the great tones of the show throughout. There was, underneath it all, a sense of a community, a microcosm of the world, just trying to get on with each other in some way, shape or form.”
Awful things happened on Downton, of course. There was war and death and crime and tragedy. No social ill went unexplored. But there was also hope and laughter and light.
“So many people come up and say they watched it as a family or through a period of great pain and suffering or, you know, ‘It reminds me of my late mum or granny,’ or whatever it was,” Bonneville said. “And they just want to talk about how it affected their lives in such a good way.”
Joining Lord Grantham in Georgetown for a day of Downton-on-the-Potomac prerelease publicity interviews were castmates Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) and executive producer and writer Julian Fellowes.
Carmichael, as cheerful and friendly in person as her character Lady Edith is perpetually put upon and pouty, recalled the great feeling of unity that existed in the United Kingdom during the London Olympics in 2012. Like Bonneville, she feels the series and the movie captured a spirit of togetherness that has since become strained beyond anyone’s imagination.
“I just remember how joyful 2012 was,” Carmichael said. “What a happy time. The U.K. was completely different. And I do think audiences will have that feeling again that not only is it two hours in that world, but it’s very optimistic and uncynical and taking at the heart of it that people are good and trying to do right. And I think there is something that will remind you of how you felt.”
Set in 1927, the movie catches up with Downton’s denizens five years on from when the series concluded. The movie’s glorious opening sequence follows the journey of a letter sent from Buckingham Palace through verdant countryside, past quaint churchyards and up the crunchy gravel driveway to Highclere Castle, the magnificent real home that doubled as the show’s fictional centerpiece.
“The house, which is an extraordinary house, has never shown as well as on the big screen,” Fellowes said. “That first shot swoops down and I felt that was really the house deciding to be a movie star instead of just the television star.”
The letter — a message from the king! — informs the Crawleys that King George V and Queen Mary will visit Downton as part of a royal tour. From there, all subplots spin and the whirlwind launches the familiar cast of aristocrats and their essential downstairs help through two hours of mini-dramas, turbulent twists and silly asides that are all tied together in a lovely bow by movie’s end.
Writing for a Downton film rather than the series meant that Fellowes, who won a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for “Gosford Park” in 2002, had to make sure that all the plots connected and were resolved by the closing credits.
“You have to alter the structure to have a narrative that has a central unity,” Fellowes said. “In a series you don’t. One story is Mary trying out a new boyfriend and another is Daisy going for a walk in the village and buying an apple. They don’t have to have any interconnection at all. They don’t have to finish in one episode, they can just dribble on through the whole season.”
In the movie, there’s no dribbling allowed. All plots needed to be resolved. Oh, and there had to be all the fancy stuff, too. Building the movie around the royal visit, Fellowes added, “gave us the parades and balls and banquets and spectacular clothes and all that kind of movie value.”
For Dockery, who played Lady Mary over six seasons as she evolved from an icy, self-involved daughter and sibling to a more generous and perspicacious young woman determined to keep Downton afloat, the return to Highclere to film the movie prompted a revelation that perhaps she had taken the success of working on the show for granted.
“It took my breath away when I walked up to the castle for the first time in three years and I was like, ‘Wow this is where I was every day.’ And then you begin to feel like you want to savor every single minute,” she said.
Dockery also appreciated playing a complex character who has long both charmed and infuriated the show’s loyal viewers.
“Julian writes such brilliant characters and real people. And I love to hear that Mary was loved and hated,” Dockery said, laughing. “I felt like that about characters that I’ve watched. I felt that way about Tony Soprano. One minute I was in love with him, the next minute I hated him for the way he treated Carmela. And that’s what makes good television, isn’t it?”
It is, indeed.
Reprising her role as Mrs. Patmore, Downton Abbey’s harried cook, Nicol said she was as excited as the fans were to have a movie follow in the show’s successful wake. And she admitted that she often made a suggestion to Fellowes about her character, but to no avail.
“I’ve been banging on about getting a boyfriend, relentlessly,” Nicol said. “She had one dalliance which didn’t last very long and that was a disaster.”
Nicol also revealed that she didn’t find out her character’s first name — on the show, she’s only ever Mrs. Patmore — until well into the series.
“Literally, I was in a scene and I got a letter from my sister and it said, ‘Dear Beryl,’ and I went, “Whoa, hang on, has this been decided?’?” Nicol recalled. “And they went, ‘Yes, you’re called Beryl.’?”
Maggie Smith, who plays Violet Crawley, the tart-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham, wasn’t with her castmates in Georgetown, but they all sung her praises, particularly Dockery, who has shared many Downton scenes over the years with Smith, one of England’s most-beloved and accomplished actresses.
In one of the film’s final scenes — spoiler alert here if you’re still reading! — Violet shares a bit of crucial information with her granddaughter, and everything that has happened in the series and movie feels as if it has led to that moment.
“It was really special. It did feel kind of frozen in time for me,” Dockery said. “There’s always a little bit of magic doing something with Maggie, but that scene particularly, because of the content of it.”
Dockery said she watched the film with her family and they were all moved as the magic unfolded.
“I’ve always felt with Downton that what comes across is this great closeness that we all have. And I do think it comes across on the screen,” Dockery said. “I was watching it and for a second I thought I was watching me and not Mary because it felt so real.”
The best escapes all feel that way.