Downton Abbey, the 2010-2015 series about the upstairs owners and downstairs staff of an early 20th-century English manor, is now a feature film (opening Sept. 20). It was the No. 1 PBS drama in history, seen by 120 million worldwide and almost three times more popular than Mad Men in the U.S., and while it attracted viewers of all ages, grownups over 50 are an enormous part of its fan base. Downton's producer and stars tell AARP what you need to know about the film.
You don't have to know the show to like the movie.
Downton creator Julian Fellowes, 70, made sure the script smoothly fills in any character backstories a newcomer needs to know. “It's comfortingly the same for people who have watched the show,” says Fellowes, “but I don't think it's difficult to follow for people who haven't. The Crawley family [owners of the manor Downton Abbey] and the people who work for them are dealing with the arrival of the king and queen — it's not hard to get your head around.” Downton Abbey's chronically squabbling denizens unite to fight off the royal servants, who try to seize control of the visit. “The villains are the interlopers,” says Fellowes. It's like a long episode, only with 80 more royal horses, 250 extras, and parade, railroad station, ballroom, and grand banquet scenes. “It's like a sumptuous big-screen Christmas special or season finale,” says Hugh Bonneville, 55, who plays Robert Crawley, lord of the manor.
It's set 18 months after the last episode, in 1927.
"With Downton, we have gone 15 years from 1912 to 1927,” says Fellowes, “and we've taken 10 years to do it. So the difference between real time and fictional time is not very great.
Fellowes knows what he's writing about.
An actual lord of an English manor himself, a descendant of the founder of Downton Agricultural College and a member of the House of Lords, Fellowes spins his heritage into popular drama with consummate skill. “Julian Fellowes consciously or unconsciously tapped into something with very broad appeal,” says Bonneville, “with elements of soap, multistranded storylines, melodrama, a big sense of sweeping romance, of yearning looks and love unuttered, some great one-liners and some really sobbing, heartbreaking moments as well. He somehow concocted a delicious pudding with a spoonful for everyone."
Downton is great because Fellowes only succeeded as a grownup.
After decades of struggle as an actor and the loss of his big TV break — Fellowes was nearly cast as Herve Villechaize's replacement as a butler on Fantasy Island, only to be replaced by a younger actor — he got an Oscar at 52 for his first produced screenplay, for Robert Altman's Gosford Park, which he parlayed into Downton Abbey. “His great advantage as a writer is that he's been an actor all his life,” says Bonneville. “A young person wouldn't be able to write with the depth of wisdom and experience these characters portray."
The show's most popular character, Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith), has a new sparring partner.
Smith still eloquently feuds with her frienemy Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton, 73), but now she fences with another daunting Downton relation. “We have Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshaw, who is a cousin of Robert but also a lady in waiting to the queen, and she has a certain amount of stuff to settle with Maggie. We needed a heavyweight to take Maggie on in the ring.” Harry Potter star Staunton, 63 (in real life married to Jim Carter, who plays Downton's head butler), has won more Olivier Awards than anyone but Dame Judi Dench. “For such a tiny person [60 inches tall], Imelda is quite a powerhouse,” says Bonneville, “and her character is certainly a social match for Violet — and it's a great little triangle that develops between them and Isobel, with a really fun development towards the end [a big, scandalous secret]. Of course, you know the dowager will always come out on top in her own mind, even if not in reality."
Poor Edith (Laura Carmichael) isn't poor anymore.
"'Poor Edith,’ she was always referred to, has actually come out better than anybody, with her enormous castle in Northumberland,” says Bonneville. Once a loser in life, tormented by her prettier sister Mary (Michelle Dockery), now Edith is in love and in clover. “Edith's status has changed between the end of the series and the film,” says Fellowes. “She's now the Marchioness of Hexham — she outranks everyone.”
The head cook, Mrs. Patmore, and her protegee Daisy have a midlife role reversal.
"They started off like a mother and daughter kind of relationship,” says Lesley Nichols, 66, who plays Mrs. Patmore. “Mrs. P. is the boss, but she's also older and wiser and outspoken, and little Daisy (Sophie McShera) was frankly a bit dopey to begin with. But as years go by, she gets self-educated and develops ambition and confidence, as often happens in mother/daughter relationships. She speaks for Mrs. P., protects Mrs. P., and she'll tell her off if necessary."
Downton Abbey isn't quite fictional.
England's king and queen really did make a tour of manors like Downton in 1927, and even the most unlikely details often turn out to be based on fact — like Mary's diplomat lover who dies in bed with her in Season 1. “It wasn't made up at all,” says Fellowes. “A friend of mine came upon this diary of his great-aunt, a blameless dowager. In youth, she had this man in her bed, a diplomat, and he died of a heart attack. If this story got out, the scandal would've been sensational and ruined them. So they dragged his body down the corridors into his own bed. The deception was completely successful. I said, ‘One day I'm going to use this in a script.'” Robert Crawley is convincingly based on Fellowes’ father, who told him, “If you have the misfortune to be born into a generation which must earn its living, you might as well do something amusing [showbiz].”
Downton Abbey is the remedy for today's bad news.
"Downton invites you through doors that have written upon them, ‘Welcome, Come In, Take Off Your Muddy 21st Century Shoes, Sit Yourself Down and Have a Relaxing Cuppa With Friends,'” says Bonneville. “It may be a long invitation, but then again, we have very wide doors.”
It proves grownups are a force Hollywood needs to wake up and recognize.
"Cinema number crunchers are going to have to go to their calculators and say, ‘Hang on, maybe there is an audience that goes for films with gravitas or wisdom behind them,’ says Bonneville. “Interesting, intelligent choices that come out of left field. Studios ignore the maturing audience at their peril. Of course it's fun to have a popcorn movie, but my goodness, you need a decent diet. Otherwise your kidneys and your liver pack up."
AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.