Downton Abbey returns to offer comfort in today's 'whirlpool' of turmoil

Downton Abbey, which began as a British TV melodrama, makes its much-anticipated return as a feature film in North American theatres today, going some distance toward a goal its creators had of offering audiences emotional comfort against the backdrop of a planet in turmoil.

British period melodrama focused on aristocratic Crawley family and their staff moves from TV to big screen

When Downton Abbey hits movie theatres today, the story will focus on the impact of a royal visit on the Crawley family and their staff. Above, Lady Edith, centre, played by Laura Carmichael, is greeted by her mother, Lady Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, left, and her father, Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, second from right. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

Lady Edith is cheerful and contented — and that's saying something, given how life has given the middle Crawley sister on Downton Abbey a considerable dose of heartbreak.

So is Daisy, the under cook, who tells her sympathetic kitchen boss Mrs. Patmore: "I'm happy. I don't often say it, but I am."

Lady Edith and Daisy end up revelling in their fortunate emotional state as the British TV period melodrama that brought them into living rooms around the world makes its much-anticipated return as a feature film, opening in North American theatres today.

And in that, the movie goes some distance toward a goal its creators had of offering moviegoers some emotional succor against the backdrop of a planet in turmoil.

"In a world that is lacking in certainty, I hope that, for the price of a cinema ticket, viewers will get two hours of comfort and reassurance in return," creator Julian Fellowes told Harper's Bazaar. "A bit of a rest from the whirlpool." 

That goal wasn't lost on the actors who reunited for the big screen.

Sophie McShera, as Daisy Mason, left, and Lesley Nicol, as Mrs. Patmore share a moment in the Downton Abbey kitchen. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

"There's so much uncertainty … and this is like an antidote to all the horrors that [are] going on," Phyllis Logan, who plays housekeeper Elsie Hughes, said this week as she stopped off in Toronto to promote the film.

Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, also sees the film offering audiences more than escapism.

"It does celebrate things that people do value, like being decent with each other and ... being loyal to people and all those traits," Nicol said during the media stop at Spadina Museum.

"At heart, [these values are] very important and it feels in this world at the moment that some of the people in charge are not giving that any thought at all, and I think it reassures people."

Maybe we're more aware

Not that these times are necessarily more stressful than previous eras, but perhaps people are more aware of the turmoil in the world, when the next bad headline is right there waiting on the screen of your phone.

"I don't know if it's so much the geopolitical world as it is the way modern media presents it to people," said Michael Kennedy, a Downton fan and film and television director who also teaches directing at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to say today films serve as comfort more than in the past, but I think audiences seek it and need it more because they're more aware of the anxiety and dangers that are out there in the world."

Phyllis Logan, left, who plays housekeeper Elsie Hughes, and Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, were in Toronto this week to promote the Downton Abbey movie. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

In the world of Downton Abbey, however, there isn't a lot of anxiety or danger. The aristocratic Crawley family lives upstairs in the elegantly appointed big house (Highclere Castle in real life), with their loyal staff below stairs. Lives and loves unfold with a fair degree of melodrama.

In one of the TV show's soapier moments, Lady Mary had to sort out how to deal with the dead body of a handsome Turkish diplomat who succumbed to a heart attack while in bed with her, a story Fellowes has said is based on a real incident.

In the case of the film, the central tenet is how a visit by King George V and Queen Mary to Downton Abbey in 1927 will affect everyone — upstairs and down.

"In today's time, that's a fairly minor issue considering the slate of things that most people see in the news ... and have to deal with every day, so I believe, yes [Downton Abbey] is providing a comfort and an escape," said Kennedy, much like other popular films this year such as The Lion King or How to Train Your Dragon.

That's not to say Downton Abbey doesn't give a nod to issues of its day that are more fraught — a police raid on an illegal nightclub where gay men gather offers the audience some moments of sober second thought.

Maggie Smith, centre, as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has lost none of her wit in the movie version of Downton Abbey. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

Downton Abbey's return comes more than three years after the series left TV with a boatload of awards and much praise for its high production values, but no promise of a return.

Still, fans always hoped the aristocratic Crawleys and their downstairs staff would be back. When advance tickets went on sale last month, the movie had more sales than any other drama so far this year.

And when those moviegoers settle into their seats, they'll be transported back to the familiar opening scenes and sounds of the clacking of a train down a track and the dinging of a service bell.

Even in that familiarity, there can be some solace for the audience.

"I think people become attached to these details and then are psychologically prepared to relax for an hour or two and be entertained and comforted by some of their favourite characters," said Kennedy.

Back in fine form

Those favourites are all back in fine form in the movie, from Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess of Grantham (and her zingers) to Mrs. Hughes and her now-husband, Carson, the retired butler who returns to give his downstairs guidance as the house prepares for the royal visit.

Logan, left, stars as Mrs. Hughes, Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary Talbot and Jim Carter is Mr. Carson, the retired butler who returns to Downton Abbey as it prepares to host a royal visit. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

"As a fan of the show, you're rooting for the happiness of characters … from different backgrounds and different ages and different walks of life," said Michael Rubinoff, co-producer of the theatrical juggernaut Come from Away.

"And I think we like seeing that mirror reflected. We may not be an earl or a count or a member of the Royal Family, but perhaps we see ourselves in some of the other characters or in the working-class characters, regardless of class."

Logan said the cast has a character everybody can relate to, whether it's Barrow, now the butler, or Lady Mary.

"They were all developed over the years," said Nicol. "We were on a journey, but the audience were on it with us for sure. [Fellowes] developed everybody's story because he's such a good writer and I think that's what happened. People got hooked into what's going to happen to them next."

As much as Downton Abbey was praised for its writing, storytelling, lush costumes and scenes, it also faced its share of criticism during its TV run, from quibbles over historical accuracy to debate over its portrayal of class.

Still, suggests Rubinoff, such criticism doesn't diminish the entertainment value and any emotional response a show such as Downton can provide or provoke, even for a little while.

"Whether you have questions about things that are factual — whether you say, oh it's just entertainment and everything's going on around it, you cannot deny an emotional response to … something that's in the arts-related or entertainment mediums," said Rubinoff.  "Those feelings are real."

Carson's loyalty to Downton and the Crawley family is deep and steadfast, throughout the TV and movie versions of the story. (Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features)

Of course, any happiness audience members might feel after seeing something like Downton Abbey may not last that long after they leave the theatre.

"But it does allow you to engage with others in a certain way that might be more positive than if you hadn't watched that … coming into your workplace and having a discussion about how much you enjoyed something," said Rubinoff, who is also creative producing director of the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan.

"That might just set a positive tone to the day or strengthen a relationship between colleagues or people. I think that's a good thing."

Obviously, Rubinoff said, the Downton creators weren't setting out to do a documentary. It's a drama, more in that realm of soap opera.

"But if you find something joyous, I think that emotional response should be embraced, and that's good entertainment."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.