Why We Need the ‘Downton Abbey’ Movie, an ‘Oasis’ From the ‘Relentless Anger’ of Life
Creator Julian Fellowes takes us inside the new film, the show’s popularity, and why, “in such disturbed times,” we crave the simple pleasures of “Downton.”
On screen, there were the happily-ever-afters and neatly tied bows: the wedding and the baby and the job offer and the toast to the future. “With any luck, they’ll be happy enough,” spoke the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, in 2015’s final episode of Downton Abbey. “Which is the English version of a happy ending.”
As far as these things go, it was satisfying enough. Which is the TV version of a perfect conclusion.
Off-screen, there was the sobbing and the farewells and the reveling at the wrap party at the Ivy Club. The actors shot off in different directions, landing TV series and movie franchises and starring roles in plays of their own.
Lord (Julian) Fellowes, the man who created the Emmy-winning global phenomenon, the upstairs-downstairs travails of which delighted audiences for six seasons, filled up his dance card, too. The 70-year-old member of the House of Lords wrote musicals running both in the West End and on Broadway, has two major dramas in pre-production, and earlier this year released the film The Chaperone, which he wrote.
To him, Downton Abbey returning on the big screen was as unlikely a notion as Lord Grantham endorsing the idea of Lady Sybil wearing pants.
The first point was logistics, he says, as we connect on the phone a few days prior to that aforementioned unlikely film version of Downton’s official release this Friday. (A testament to its mammoth popularity: It sold more advance tickets than any drama this year in the U.S.) “I just didn’t think it would be possible to round them all up,” he says. “And after all, a film after a hit series is not inevitable. There’s no film for Mad Men.”
It’s almost too difficult to quantify the rabid fan obsession with Downton, which spans both sides of the Atlantic. When asked why he thinks the show was so popular, Fellowes flatly says, “I don’t really know.” (It’s not the first time he’s been asked.)
It broke ratings records both in the U.K. and in the U.S., where it became one of the first benefactors of a certain streaming-era phenomenon, in which making previous seasons available for bingeing amplified viewership for future seasons of the show.
The American press, for one, was mystified by the popularity of this costume drama. At the time of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and a Golden Age of angsty antiheroes and darkness, here was this polite show taking place at the turn of the 20th century set in an English manor in which dress fittings and meal service provide the bulk of the dramatic tension.
But there we were, linking arms in obsession across the ocean, joining European audiences in their shock and outrage over the deaths of Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley and Jessica Brown Findlay’s Lady Sybil. (To all the controversy over that, Fellowes says that when an actor who is a member of the central family wants off the show, the only believable exit is death.)
We engaged in hot debate over which of the Crawley sisters was the best—Lady Edith is the only correct answer—and delighted in memes memorializing Maggie Smith’s line readings as the Dowager Countess.
Everyone had their own journeys in discovering that the actors were actually, well, hot once out of Downton drag. On the subject of moments that birthed a global phenomenon, we all remember where we were the first time we witnessed the fate of one Mr. Pamuk.
And should you have truly missed the show that much, a hit costume exhibition arrived in 2017.
Now there’s Downton, the Movie.
As the marketing blitz for the Downton film has ramped up in recent weeks, the hype might have at times seemed—I don’t know—a bit silly, at least making the British in us feel bashful: all this fanfare for the return of a slight period soap opera.
But there’s been something poignant about the idea that Downton is coming back, that we’ll be back in the house with these characters and their costumes and their old-world, high-society peccadilloes again. There’s something very appealing, today, about returning to the familiar world of Downton.
“We are living in such disturbed times,” Fellowes says. “There’s a sort of calmness in the Downton world. They go up and get dressed for dinner and they come down and they’re all polite to each other and everything. It does seem like a nice oasis away from the kind of strange, relentless anger that is spewing forth on every side at the moment in our real lives.”
The king and the queen are coming to Downton.
Broadly speaking, that’s it. That’s the central narrative of the film.
The events take place in 1927, and Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary’s looming visit is proving to be a sort of powder keg in the Great House, as the Crawleys scramble to orchestrate a parade and dinner in their honor and the downstairs servants are thrown into chaos while tending the details.
Fellowes had the divine inspiration for the storyline while reading a book about a tour the king and queen made of Yorkshire in 1912. Setting up similar circumstances at Downton accomplished the film’s main challenge: Finding a situation that everyone, from the family to the servants to the townspeople, would be affected by and have an opinion about.
While the series dealt with tragic deaths, rape, and war, the film steers clear of that overt darkness. “Downton has always been a kind of sunshine and showers show,” Fellowes says, though there are certainly moments of high drama and, involving Smith’s Dowager Countess, deep emotion.
Spokes of side story are introduced in the typically accelerated Downton Abbey fashion. The literal dozens of cast members are each given something meaningful to do, on various levels of high drama.
Carson (Jim Carter) is brought back to man the ship. Daisy (Sophie McShera) leads a downstairs revolt when the palace sends their own servants to take over duties. Anna (Joanne Froggatt), as is her wont, saves the day amidst a theft scandal.
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her husband, Bertie (Harry Hadden-Patton), see their relationship tested when the king offers him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) political sympathies are called into question, leading to the film’s biggest action set piece; later, he’s key to its most romantic arc.
And the inimitable Dowager Countess (Smith) attempts to get to the bottom of an inheritance drama involving Lord Grantham and a long-lost relative who now works for the queen, played by Imelda Staunton.
Outside of all the royal hullabaloo is a lovely and tender subplot involving the butler, Thomas (Robert James-Collier), who is on a journey to embracing his homosexuality that is welcomingly sweet, but not without recognizing the reality of the stakes for him at that time.
“Even while we do give Thomas some romance and some fun after all these years, nevertheless the danger was never far away,” Fellowes says. “If you were gay then you were a persecuted minority. I think we need to remind the younger generation so that they’re aware of that now.”
If you watched the Downton Abbey series, your reaction may be similar to mine while screening the film, which, according to my notes, was to list each character’s name and draw large hearts next to them as they appeared on screen.
Even the camera’s first sweeping aerial shot of Highclere Castle, the real-life estate where Downton is shot, delivers nostalgic goosebumps, as the familiar theme music twinkles in the background. “One of the things I enjoyed was the house stepped up to the plate and kind of expanded to fill the cinema screen,” Fellowes says. “I felt the house had done the job proud.”
But if you weren’t a fan, not one of the names just mentioned will likely mean a lick to you, nor is there any emotional attachment to returning to the glorious house again. As early reviewers noted, that’s not a hindrance to the enjoyment of the movie.
“Obviously, it’s made to appeal to the people who liked the series,” Fellowes says. “But I think I was quite concerned that it wouldn’t be mysterious for someone who hadn’t seen the series.”
“Look,” he continues, “the basic concept of a family and its servants in the 1920s, it’s not very difficult to grasp.”
For all this talk about kings and queens, though, at its heart, as it has always been, the Downton movie is a story about change: changing times, changing attitudes, and navigating our place and responsibilities through it all.
The arrival of their majesties makes Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is now in control of the house affairs, wonder whether it makes sense to continue with Downton at all. All around, these great houses and estates are being abandoned or repurposed as a new age of British life is ushered in. What is her place—and the house’s place—amid all that change?
That, too, is a timely question.
“All of us at some point query our career choice or marriage or whatever it is,” Fellowes says. “I think every society has to ask itself every so often where they’re going. Just as in real life.”