Two years ago, I boarded a tour bus at Victoria Coach Station in London for one of the most anticipated adventures of my whirlwind 10-day tour of England. A lifelong royal watcher and Downton Abbey devotee, I was determined to visit the real-life home of the fictional Crawley family — Highclere Castle.
I devoured every moment of my visit to Highclere Castle, which made Downton Abbey even more special in theatres. While the television show offers striking shots of the historic home, the film showcases the breathtaking beauty of the castle and the entire estate in a way that fully captures how magical it is in real life.
Home Is Where Mr. Carson Is
The Downton Abbey film was like going home in so many ways. I feel intimately connected with the setting — not only because I got to visit it a few years ago, but because I’ve spent hours watching it on TV. The cast is familiar and even the new characters introduce narratives and themes we’ve seen before.
The opening of the film reflects the beginning of the series — with the journey of a message. But instead of giving us tragic news about the Titanic, we’re being gifted with the delightful driving force for the plot: a royal visit! But that’s not the only gift the film gives loyal viewers. All of our favorite characters are back (even Sybil is mentioned, although naturally, we don’t see her).
I was delighted as soon as the film began. The music of Downton Abbey has always felt both comforting and questioning to me. You know where you are because the location stays consistent, but you never quite know what changes are in store.
Aside from feeling like a giddy school girl, the intro had me welling up with pride and appreciation. I felt like a delighted mum on graduation day seeing the names of well-respected film veterans and newly minted movie stars sprawled across the silver screen. As soon as the film began, I knew I was home and so were the characters and actors I love.
One of the most anticipated homecomings for the audience and Lady Mary alike was Mr. Carson’s return to Downton. We’re offered a glimpse into how Thomas (with just a glimmer of gray starting to peek through) is running Downton. And while he’s no longer the scheming young man he once was, he still lacks the polished reverence for tradition that Mr. Carson embodies.
Dame Maggie Smith’s famed Dowager Countess is back with enough witty one-liners to satisfy Gary Janetti. But while she’s still filled with spunk and sass, her lines are delivered a touch more feebly, which is understandable given both Smith and her character’s age. It’s a soft vulnerability that you might notice in your own parents or grandparents that makes you feel so blessed to have them around, but reminds you of the limited time you have left with them.
That’s how I felt the entire film. I was so happy to be experiencing it, but each minute that passed meant that we were one step closer to the end, which I wanted to put off forever.
Everything We Love and More
The movie captures all the resplended intrigue of a world we can’t quite relate to, all while kicking it up a notch with royalty and the even grander Harewood House (which I also happened to visit while in England!!!). With new, royal characters and an additional stately home, Downton Abbey serves up everything we love about the franchise and more.
Both the upstairs and downstairs plots center around the royal visit, although one of the major downstairs plot lines felt less than realistic to me. I played along and I’m glad I did. Molesley’s devotion redeemed it all and reminded me why I enjoy Downton Abbey so much.
If it’s been a few years since you watched the show, it may be helpful to rewatch a few episodes to refresh your memory. With so many characters and storylines to recall, there were a couple of small instances that left me trying to remember what happened in the final season. It’s easy enough to pick up on most characters and their stories, though. It’s exciting, even, to see how they’ve all gone on with their lives since we last saw them.
The film is perfectly packaged and invites you to comfortably fall for everything you already love about it. Although the lavish world of Downton Abbey feels far removed, the movie reminds us that with all the changes the 20th century brought on, places like Highclere Castle and Harewood House are more accessible than ever before. In fact, these sprawling estate homes rely on period drama lovers in many ways and reflect the changing tides of cultural power and relevance.
Rooted in History
As an American with British roots, part of the appeal of period pieces like Downton Abbey is that they are inspired by reality, but accessible to the everyman. My grandparents hailed from Yorkshire, where Downton Abbey is set. Although they likely never would have had the opportunity to set foot in a grand home filled with lords and ladies, the complex social changes that Downton Abbey explores have given me the opportunity to get an inside look at how the aristocracy lived not too long ago — and how they live today.
At its heart, both the TV show and the film are an exploration of the development of British culture, sprinkled with the glitz and mystique of the early 20th-century. There has long been a delicate balance between upstairs and downstairs, villagers and noble countrymen. “Downton Abbey,” much like headlines about the royal family today, blurs the lines between tradition and progression, making us question what separates the classes.
Class Is in Session
While we all adore the Crawleys and the royal family, much of their lofty circumstances are merely chance. The core family members are graced at birth. Some, like Lady Mary, embrace their rank, while characters like Lady Sybil ignore the confines of their class and stretch toward new values. Men like Matthew Crawley and Bertie Pelham are miraculously gifted their good fortune. Others, like Tom Branson and a new character we meet in the film, enter the fold in a slightly more modern way — through the complex realities of “unconventional” families.
Downstairs, Mr. Carson unwaveringly upholds tradition. His wife, the former Mrs. Hughes, believes in order, structure and respect — but she isn’t afraid to remind those she’s closest to that the Crawley family is made up of humans just the same. Thomas famously begrudges the social structure he’s trapped in, eventually embracing it to advance his career. During the film, Daisy emerges as more opinionated than ever about nobility, while Mr. Molesley nearly falls over himself in admiration for the royal family (I’m right there with you, Molesley). Anna and Mr. Bates exude healthy respect for the Crawleys and the royal family, in many ways crossing the lines between service and friendship throughout the series and the film.
At Downton, there’s no right or wrong answer about the social merits of the upstairs and downstairs. But what is always clear is that change is afoot. A chauffeur can become a trusted son-in-law and help manage a grand estate, despite his political opinions. Lady Mary’s retired racing husband can own a used car shop. Thomas can explore his identity and Mrs. Patmore can open up her own business.
As the descendant of coal miners from Yorkshire, it’s inspiring to see the long-established class system explored in Downton Abbey. Aside from the grandeur of the estate home, one of the most striking nuances I noticed while visiting England as an American is how relevant the past still is. History remains in the scars on buildings and land from both World Wars and the memorials that fill the country, even in unsuspecting locations. It lives on with formidable country estates and social structure that still impacts relationships and families. The effects of the early 20th century that Downton Abbey reflects on are embedded in the set locations, which in many cases are real parts of local communities.
Downton Abbey reminds us of a time gone by, all the while revealing the fact that the struggles and triumphs these beloved characters face aren’t too different from modern life. Sisters still argue and reconcile into adulthood. Young people struggle to understand their identity. Family secrets make us question who we are. And most of us are trying to define ourselves despite the tiny boxes that society has placed us in. Homes like Downton Abbey are the constant, standing steadfast as the people within the gilded walls change, grow and, in some cases, remain the same.
Much like I wish the stately homes that dot the English countryside a long life, I never wanted the Downton Abbey movie to end. And while the ending was perfectly tied up in a satin bow, the ribbon could effortlessly be loosened to reveal a surprise wrapped up in the form of a sequel. A girl can dream, right?