Downton Abbey told the story of the Crawley family – Lord and Lady Grantham, their daughters, and the enormous estate on which they live. When we first met them, in our 2010 and their 1912, the Crawley family is despairing. The Crawley fortune has been diminishing for years; the Earl of Grantham has just barely held on by marrying a wealthy American, but the two have had only daughters, so there is no male heir to inherit his title or their home. Of course, that’s not their only obstacle, and they aren’t the show’s only characters. An enormous staff is necessary to keep the house running. And while the British aristocracy is declining, the lower classes are rising up, and the two are at an interesting and eventful crossroads. There is an important division between the upstairs and downstairs, one that made for an interesting watch throughout the show’s 6 seasons.
Cut to the movie, circa 1927. The estate is still limping along, although it has lost many of its original (and necessary) domestic servants (don’t worry: the ones you know and love from the show are all present and accounted for). The family are trying their best to economize where they can, but have just received news that’s sure to cost them a pretty penny: the estate is being honoured with a visit from the King and Queen. The enormous burden this presents for the staff is offset by the privilege of serving the royal family – but then the royal family sends ahead their own staff – cooks, butlers, footmen, maids, the whole kit and caboodle, and instead of being happy for some time off, Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and the whole beloved staff interpret it as the a slap in the face. Will they take it sitting down? Hardly. They’re polishing the silver with mutiny in their hearts. Meanwhile, upstairs, the Dowager (Maggie Smith) is still plotting to save the estate and her son’s hereditary title. And the family’s black sheep, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is being surveilled because the monarchy takes no chances with Irish republicans, even if they’ve married into the British aristocracy.
The show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, is on hand to write the perfect screenplay to throw all of the characters back into their country home. It’s everything a fan of the show could want: the stunning, sun-drenched rooms are made spic-and-span, the servants are scheming, the ladies are asserting themselves, the lower classes are rebelling, times are a-changing, and there are plenty of reasons to motivate several costume changes.
And just for a moment, can we talk about those costumes? Costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins worked with John Bright of the costume company COSPROP, which has some of Queen Mary’s actual gowns that could be studied for authenticity. The dress made for the movie was made using actual material from one of the Queen’s original dresses. For the ball scene both Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) wear vintage dresses embellished by the film’s costumers. Dame Maggie Smith’s character, also in vintage, sports a real 19th century platinum tiara with 16.5 carats worth of actual diamonds on loan from Bentley & Skinner of Piccadilly, jewelers by Royal appointments. La-di-dah.
While the film pays respect to the past, it also has an eye to the future, with the Countess Dowager passing the baton, as it were. There’s a certain resolve within the family to keep the estate going for as long as possible, but you and I know the writing’s on the wall, so while the fixtures gleam under the staff’s careful attention, there’s a slight tarnish to it too.
Literally everyone is back, an ensemble impressive in both quantity and quality. And though I wouldn’t have had it any other way, their sheer number means we don’t get a whole lot of time with any one of them. It’s just a taste, really, an amuse-bouche, enough to leave your mouth watering for the main course, but alas, we skip straight to dessert. Still, it’s so nice to catch up with our old pals and considering the film’s success, it needn’t be for the last time either.