This story contains spoilers for Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Downton Abbey: A New Era, the new movie sequel to the highly popular period drama, boasts a wedding, a birth, a death, a threat to the family bloodline—and of course, Dowager Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith) firing off deadpan zingers.
“Downton Abbey is just really the gift that keeps on giving. I couldn’t believe we were going to do a second movie because it’s just so hard to do,” said Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley, at the film’s U.S. premiere at the New York Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday. “We’ve been doing it for so long, and to think of an idea that breathes a little bit of new energy without sacrificing everything that everybody loves about it—that is a big ask. But [creator and writer] Julian [Fellowes] really managed to do that. The movie really is funny, and then it packs an emotional punch.”
The film, out in theaters May 20, begins with the dowager revealing that she has acquired a villa in the South of France after the death of a mysterious man from her past. In order to sort out the inheritance, she sends her son Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora, her granddaughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), Edith’s husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), Tom Branson (Allen Leech)—who married into the Crawley family after years of being their chauffeur—his new wife Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), and his mother-in-law Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) to meet the family and find out why they are giving up this villa.
Meanwhile, Mary (Michelle Dockery) remains behind to supervise a film production company that arrives at Downton to make a silent film—an arrangement reluctantly accepted by the family only to raise money to repair Downton’s leaking roof. The downstairs servants are thrilled to meet Hollywood actors, while the upstairs family members strongly disdain the art of cinema. Robert calls actresses “plastered in makeup” and “actors just plastered.” The dowager says she’d rather “eat pebbles” than watch a film and adds, “The best thing about films is that you can’t hear them.”
“The upper class didn’t really take to film or television for quite a long time. They saw it sort of as working-class entertainment,” said Fellowes on the arrival carpet prior to the screening. “It was their children that took them into film, and I always remember that from my own parents. My father had said he and my mother were very keen on film, but his parents’ generation were not at all. My father had persuaded his aunt to go to a film with him and she absolutely found it grotesque. That was the inspiration for why the Crawleys do not like films.”
The movie’s film-within-a-film plotline imitated life at times for the cast. Like the rest of Downton, the sequel was filmed at Highclere Castle, located in Newbury, England. The owners of Highclere Castle, the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, opened up their home to the Downton Abbey TV series for six seasons. “We now know how Lord and Lady Carnarvon feel every time Downton Abbey trucks turn up,” said Bonneville. “It became very meta.”
McGovern also feels sorry for invading the Carnarvons’ personal space. “We’ve been a pain in the neck for the aristocratic family that actually do live there. We’ve visited all of them and they absolutely hate us,” she said in jest. “So it was fun to put that on its head and actually exploit it for the film. The aristocratic family is not on set with us. They make a hasty retreat. The only time that I ever saw the aristocratic wife was when George Clooney came, and she was very much around. Besides that, she’s off with her dogs. It really is an invasion. I wouldn’t want a film crew in my house, so I understand.”
The cast found it highly amusing to disparage their real-life profession onscreen. “Robert finds it despicable that a movie is being made at Downton, and it was great fun to say such horrific and negative things,” said Bonneville. “To say we are terrible, ghastly vagabonds, and all actors are lazy, unreliable, and drunk—I think Julian Fellowes just hit the nail on the head! No, it was just a delight.”
Joanne Froggatt, who plays Lady’s maid, Anna Bates, relished in the scenes where the dowager is launching a stream of caustic insults and witty remarks about making movies. “Maggie’s lines are especially well pitched because she’s very critical and talking down on actors and filmmaking—but she’s an iconic actress and double Oscar winner. So to hear her say those insults really adds to the fun of it.”
In addition to the meta, film-within-a-film narrative, A New Era concerns a long-awaited marriage proposal between beloved character Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy). “I thought it was a beautifully timed moment, actually, because I know people have wanted that for quite some time. And we were aware of that,” said Doyle. “It was lovely that it took so long, because they are very careful people. They didn’t want to hurt one another, and it was beautifully placed and beautifully written.”
“I was thrilled, actually, for the fans,” added Cassidy. “Julian really kept dangling their relationship in front of them. In particular at the end in the other film, there’s a moment where she basically said, ‘If you ask me, I’ll say yes.’ But he’s a man of his time, and so she has to stay in that exquisite longing. But I am very happy that it finally happened!”
Downton Abbey: A New Era gives its only gay returning character some hope for the future as well. Butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who had a short-lived romance with the king’s royal dresser in the first film, may have a new love interest. Movie star Guy Dexter (Dominic West) invites Barrow to become his own “butler” after the two share conversations inside Downton. Dexter insists that the setup can mean “as much or as little” as Barrow likes, and it is clear that he is more than willing to travel across the world and live happily ever after with the film star.
“I am so pleased Barrow gets a happy ending,” said Phyllis Logan, who plays Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper whom Barrow often confides in. “Between Mrs. Hughes and Barrow, they’ve had candid conversations throughout the series, and she obviously has great sympathy for his situation. She’s worried about him. He’s going to be persecuted if his sexuality is common knowledge, and potentially jailed. For him to follow his path is a hard one. He is who he is, but he is on a very harsh path in life. And now his path is the nearest that he’s ever come to living an honest life.”
Giving Barrow a happy, but honest, ending was important for Fellowes. “Despite the difficulties that were placed in front of gays, some people managed to work out compromises, and that meant they could live their life. And I wanted that to be Thomas’s story,” said Fellowes. “In the end, he found a way of living his life that was compatible with the society he found himself in. And I think that was the truth. Representing the truths of the time was important for me. It was a very sad time. Displays of homosexual affection were punishable by life imprisonment.”
Another progressive story line featured in the film is Edith slowly reentering the workforce as a journalist, working at a society magazine and being confident that she can be an attentive mother. “Women absolutely should be able to work and have a family at the same time, and I am happy that Edith is realizing that she can still work,” said Carmichael. “I just had a baby when we began the film, and I was in that mindset. It was really cool to get that outlook and be like, ‘You can do it!’ I love that she is working again.”
Fans may not realize that Carmichael’s life partner is Michael Fox, who plays footman Andrew Parker. He first appeared in season five, remained on the show until it ended, and appears in both films as well. “We share a few scenes in the film, but we haven’t interacted yet. I don’t think we ever acted together,” said Carmichael. “I am happy that I get to share this experience with him.”