Inside ‘Downton Abbey’: From the Small to Big Screen

September 19, 2019, 6:30 PM UTC

On Friday, the highest-rated PBS drama in history supersizes itself for the big screen with the release of Downton Abbey, the movie. For six seasons starting in 2010, creator Julian Fellowes depicted a soothing Edwardian-era lifestyle in which people had good posture, spoke in perfectly parsed sentences and treated each other with respect regardless of rank. A few years after its television finale, the upstairs-downstairs saga picks up in 1927 with manners, elocution, and crisply pressed wardrobe largely unruffled by modernity.

Residing at Downton Abbey, located in real life at the 1,000-acre Highclere Castle estate 45 miles west of London, are Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), chic Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), her imperious grandmother Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), feisty cook Daisy (Sophie McShera), gay butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier), Irish in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and sonorous head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), along with half a dozen other key players.

It’s a huge ensemble, gorgeously outfitted by Emmy-nominated costume designer Anna Robbins, and American director Michael Engler made sure the characters on film hewed to the values that made the TV show so popular in the first place.

“I think what people respond to first of all is that there’s an elegance, a warmth, and an optimism to the world of Downton Abbey,” Engler tells Fortune. “No matter how flawed these characters may be, they’re trying to do their best. It’s about having faith in the people around you, whatever their screw-ups may be.”

To nudge Downton Abbey residents slightly beyond their small-screen comfort zone, creator Julian Fellowes concocted a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary as the movie’s main event. “In a film everyone must have their tale to tell and all of them must be resolved, which meant quite a bit of plaiting,” Fellowes said in a statement. “We chose to make the Royal visit the central strand. Making the film gave us the opportunity to manage things on a grander scale than we could have done on television and the Royal couple… provide us with the excuse to fill the screen with pomp and pageantry.”

The most extravagant Downton Abbey set piece showcases the first feature-film appearance by King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, formed in 1793. “We had to essentially build an encampment with mess tents and sleeping tents, set up places for the horses to feed and have water, accommodate veterinarians and all the armorers that maintain the cannons and guns and uniforms,” Engler says. “On top of that, we had most of our main cast plus hundreds of extras and hair, makeup, wardrobe staff—it was a pretty extraordinary thing to mobilize.”

Downton Abbey Director
Director Michael Engler on the set of “Downton Abbey.”
Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

The king’s arrival at Downton Abbey triggers a flurry of subplots encompassing thievery, pregnancy, the arrest of a butler for dancing with another man, an illegitimate child, an assassination attempt, and the servants’ rebellion against the snobbish royal retinue.

Charged with creating a cohesive flow between the myriad story arcs, Engler points out: “Downtown Abbey has always had a lot of tonal range with different types of comedy, romance, mystery, family drama, and workplace drama. As the director I had to maintain the right balance so it never goes so far in one direction or the other that you can’t bring it back to the middle.”

Engler illustrated his point by citing a pair of sequences that pivot from slapstick to disgrace in the space of five minutes. During the royal dinner, butler Molesley (Kevin Doyle) gets so flustered he curtsies to the king. “That’s such an over-the-top comic beat, and then the scene right after that we get Thomas’s [Robert James-Collier] humiliation, which is pretty much the darkest moment of the film,” Engler says. “But because we’re looking at this world from every level—upstairs, downstairs, the dark corners and the sparkly rooms as well—that gives us permission to be pretty bold.”

The Downton Abbey experience stands apart from Engler’s directing gigs on American television shows like 30 Rock and Sex and the City.

“I’ve always dreamed of working with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theater where you have a group of incredibly talented people all committed to this bigger thing,” he said. “Working on this movie was more like being part of a big acting company. Jim Carter and Kevin Doyle and Michael Fox are all great actors, but for our dining room scenes, they’re basically extras standing there all day long in the background. And they’re fine with it. Our actors understand when it’s their time to shine, but when it’s their time to support the others, they do it with humility and grace.”

Arguably first among equals is Dame Maggie Smith. In her role as hilariously snarky dowager Violet Crawley, she cuts to the quick with her dyspeptic one-liners. But in the film’s most affecting exchange, Smith sheds her character’s crusty demeanor for a heart-to-heart with granddaughter Mary Crawley, portrayed by Dockery.

“The scene between Violet and Mary was the most challenging for me in terms of directing actors,” Engler recalls. “We talked about it for weeks, and we rehearsed, and we had a million things to work out because we wanted it to be just right. When we finally started shooting, the scene flowed beautifully, and I think it’s because these actresses cared so deeply about each other. They didn’t really have to act about what it would be like to be passing the torch.”

Dame Maggie Smith stars as The Dowager Countess of Grantham and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot in “Downton Abbey.”
Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

The original Downton Abbey series wrapped up in 2015 (its final episodes aired stateside in early 2016). Engler believes the new film will offer a bit of fictitious respite amid fractious times with its group portrait of society as a unified front.

“I think Downton Abbey resonates now with audiences because we feature such a broad spectrum of types in terms of class and economic hierarchies and education and breeding and everything else,” he says. “Of course everybody has frustrations about whatever position they’re in, whether they’re born into it or whatever. But there’s this feeling that people who are nothing like you are invested in your well being and you’re invested in them.”

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