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Laura Carmichael and Elizabeth McGovern: “The Downton Abbey women would be relieved to live in today’s world”

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Hollie Richardson
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Downton Abbey: Laura Carmichael and Elizabeth McGovern

Laura Carmichael and Elizabeth McGovern speak to Stylist about returning to Downton Abbey, their favourite one-liner from the film, the thrill of the costumes and what it was really like for women in the 1920s.

In the Downton Abbey film, the house’s female residents are very much hailed as being the “heart and future” of Downton. 

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is battling with the logistics of running the business side of things, trying to work out if it’s all really worth it. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is trying to maintain her independence while playing her new role as marchioness. Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) is once more on hand to dish out essential motherly advice. And Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith) remains on-brand with some of her sharpest one-liners yet. 

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Then, there are the female members of staff who make sure that everything keeps ticking. Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) manages to solve any hiccups that arise during the King and Queen’s royal visit to the house. Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol) serves a royal feast. And Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) is too busy forming her feminist political views to make plans for her wedding.

It’s not the most ground-breaking film in the world. The story literally follows the King and Queen visiting Downton Abbey as part of their tour (and… that’s really it). But the subplots of these characters make it an enjoyable watch, a bit like a warm hug on a cool autumn’s night. 

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The women of Downton have been on quite a journey to get to where they are today (well, 1927). Speaking to Stylist in the aptly grand surroundings of the Corinthia Hotel in London, Carcmichael and McGovern chatted to us about their personal journeys with Lady Edith and Cora.

It’s been four years since we were last at Downton. How does it feel coming back?

Laura Carmichael: “We had such a lovely time filming. It was a shorter time than when you’re doing the series so it felt lighter in that way. You know, not worrying about getting halfway through a six month shoot and running out of steam, every day felt like a celebration of the show that we loved.”

Elizabeth McGovern: “For us, it’s the highest accolade really to be on the big screen, and there was a buzz about just that in itself, like, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived!’ It’s old-fashioned in a way, I know, but you can’t help but feel a certain amount of pride.”

Downton Abbey Lady Edith
Downton Abbey: Lady Edith (Laura Cormichael) and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) return to the screen.

The film very much focuses on the women being the heart and future of Downton Abbey, so how do you think they have evolved since series one?

LC: “Edith’s married now, so that’s a new thing. And she’s bigger and grander, she’s a marchioness. But I think you see in the film how that is a different adjustment, that she’s not really used to, because she was used to doing a bit more of what she wanted, when she liked.”

EM: “And it’s poignant that she misses work and the office.”

LC: “Yeah, it’s this thing that she’s no longer in charge of that side of her life, which we loved seeing evolve in the series. But of course, that’s an adjustment now.”

EM: “My character [Cora] is of course of the older generation, so her evolvement isn’t as radical as her daughters’. Particularly, Mary is more of a liberated, ‘take control’ figure. 

“But I think the thing about Cora is that, in her own kind of old-fashioned way, she always comes in when it is necessary to put her foot down. 

“I think that is the message that were trying to put across, that she is a very self-effacing character. But whenever anything is important enough, you can depend on Cora to take a stand and put a foot down.”

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Across the series and the film, what has been your favourite moment for Lady Edith and Cora?

LC: “I loved doing the scenes in the newspaper office. I always felt like it was so much fun to see her in a completely different context and see her find her voice. So that’s always a highlight for me.”

EM: “I always love doing the panorama scenes. They’re so much fun for an audience to watch and there’s a kind of initial buzz when people are on set in the morning.”

Lady Edith and Bertie Pelham
Downton Abbey movie: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton)

The attention to detail is a huge part of Downton’s magic. Just thinking about the costumes in particular, how do you feel they reflect Cora and Edith throughout the series, and what was your favourite outfit to wear?

LC: “They’ve changed so much, which is fun, and the Downton world is interesting for the females because the lives of women change so much in this time and you see that in the costumes as they get more practical. I mean we could hardly walk in the first series, so that changes. 

“In the film, we’re in 1927 nearing the thirties, but our costumer designer Anna [Robbins] was always conscious that we meet the King and Queen in the film. So she was like, ‘No one’s going to be racy when you’re in the presence of royalty’. So, there are hints at moving towards the 30s but maybe perhaps not so strong.”

EM: “That’s interesting, because towards the end of the series, Edith really had a different look, and she had almost like a 30s suggestion. And I would love it when you’d parade around the office in a cardigan with your portfolio.”

Downton Abbey the film is a visual feast for the eyes.
Downton Abbey movie: Maggie Smith returns as Violet Crawley.

Which is your favourite one-liner from the Downton Abbey film?

LC: “There’s a line which I think sums up Julian Fellowes’ way that he can nod to historical events in a very subtle and silly way. When we’re talking to the King very briefly about the general strike and he says, ‘Did it affect you, Lady Grantham?’. Maggie replies, ‘My maid was very curt with me for a week, and she’s a communist at heart.’ 

“It’s a sort of way of addressing this huge historical event, in a way that’s passing chat around the table, very personal, very dry and very Violet to assume her maid is being curt with her because of the general strike. It’s great.”

What do you think are the main issues for Cora as a mother in the 1920s, who is watching her daughters grow up and start families?

EM: “One of the things that I think is singular about Cora, is that – we didn’t really discuss it that much, but it’s a syndrome – you start life and you’re running this household and you’re having children and then you’re expected to take a step back and then become quite an irrelevant person in the house as your daughters then take over, as you see Mary do.

“And that would have happened to the dowager as well because it was her house. It’s not like today where children move out and start their own house and do their own thing, so that’s quite a big ask actually when you think about it. If my daughter was living with me and starting to run my house, it would take a lot of grace to just stand back and let her do it. And that was what they did.

“That was the expectation, and in fact, the dowager now lives in quite a nice house but it’s a lesser house on the estate, so they relegate everything immediately as soon as they grow older. I would find it quite difficult.”

Lord and Lady Grantham
Downton Abbey movie: Lord and Lady Grantham.

How do you think Lady Edith and Cora would fare living in today’s world?

EM: “I think they’d be really happy [laughs]. Actually, every time I stop doing the part, I feel relieved because I feel like I’m in a straight-jacket a lot of the time. I think people have this kind of nostalgia about the 1920s but for a woman, they had no choice about very much of anything, and that is not something I’d ever want to go back to myself. 

“No expectation for themselves personally, I mean Cora can’t even really have a say about the money she’s brought to the family. In today’s terms, it’s really unacceptable.”

LC: “You were so defined by your romantic relationships, it’s so crazy. And that’s the sort of thing that sparks Edith’s change, really, after being jilted. If she’d gotten married she’d have the vote, but as a single woman she didn’t.”

EM: “Everything’s about marriage, and that wasn’t even that long ago. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”

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You can watch Downton Abbey at cinemas across the UK now.

Images: Universal, Getty

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