For two hours, viewers will be transported to the early-20th-century world of the Crawleys and the close-knit tribe of servants working for the aristocratic family. They are a cast of characters so ingrained in television history that it seems almost strange — yet delightful — to see them on the big screen.
Yes, nearly four years after the series finale, “Downton Abbey” is back with a film revival, revisiting the upstairs-downstairs life of the fictional British estate. The film, written by creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler, follows the drama that unfolds when King George V and Queen Mary stay at Downton. With them comes a slew of royal servants and a distant relative of the Crawleys, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), who previously had a falling out with the family matriarch, the undeniably exquisite Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), setting up plenty of tension and intrigue.
If there’s one thing to make a fuss over, it’s surely Smith’s performance, according to her co-star Jim Carter, who plays butler Mr. Carson. He told HuffPost that after devouring the series in his living room every Sunday night, it was a wonder to watch the movie’s storylines unfold in front of an audience at the U.K. premiere last week. The film opens in wide release Friday.
“To see people laughing and applauding and cheering and really getting into it and enjoying it [was fantastic],” he said in a Build Series appearance with fellow cast members Monday. “But the great thing for me was to see Maggie Smith’s lines with an audience. I think Julian Fellowes is writing at his best when he writes for Maggie and, of course, if I could use a slight Americanism here, she knocks them out of the park. You see the best of Julian and Maggie in this film, and it’s a treat.”
“And Maggie and Penelope [Wilton] together are on fire,” Lesley Nicol, who plays cook Mrs. Patmore, chimed in.
That statement is indeed correct. The actors, both dames mind you, are sumptuous as usual ― zinging one-liner after one-liner at each other with ease and cheeky humor as the Dowager and Isobel Crawley. Once foes, they’re now the best of sidekicks, and the brightest part of the film.
Carter believes the chemistry between “Downton” cast members like Smith and Wilton is what draws in a loyal audience ― an audience that already came out in droves during the film’s U.K. opening weekend. But it’s the emotionality behind each character ― lady or maid, earl or butler ― that makes fans beg for more.
“When you saw the intimate moments, either with [Carson] and Mrs. Hughes [Phyllis Logan] or Lady Mary [Michelle Dockery], or when you see the vulnerability behind Mrs. Patmore [Nicol] when she’s having problems with her sight, those are the moments when we stepped out from being the embodiment of a cook or a butler or a footman and you saw the real person,” Carter said. “For actors, that’s the most fun to play, and I think it’s very effective for the audience, as well.”
Although there’s always trepidation when it comes to adapting a TV series into a movie, Phyllis Logan told HuffPost that “Downton Abbey” was meant to be a cinematic experience.
“It’s lush, it’s plush, it’s splendiferous,” she said.
Logan also noted that, in light of the current climate, it’s nice to be able to look up at a set of fictional, familiar faces and escape for a while.
“Mostly around the world but especially in Britain, an uncertainty pervades the atmosphere,” she said. “This ― call it escapism, call it whatever you like ― is just a way of getting away from all that and just enjoying seeing something where you can just switch off, relax and enjoy the beauty and the sound. People need that. They’re craving that.”
“Watching ‘Downton Abbey’ is like getting into a warm bubble bath, really,” Carter added. “You just bathe in it. You’re safe in this world now. Nobody’s going to get killed, it’s uncynical. It’s about people trying to find love and romance and people doing the best to fulfill their jobs, upstairs and downstairs.”
Watch the full Build Series interview with Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol below. “Downton Abbey” is in theaters everywhere Sept. 20.