Downton Abbey
Elizabeth McGovern, producer Liz Trubridge, Joanne Froggatt, and British Ambassador Karen Pierce on the red carpet at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Credit: Sarah Marloff

There are a lot of sayings about home. It’s where the heart is, there’s no place like it, and, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Really, that’s the continuing appeal of Downton Abbey—for the fans and its stars alike. 

“It was just really like going home, to the family,” actor Elizabeth McGovern tells City Paper about coming back to play the role of Cora Crawley in the film Downton Abbey: A New Era. Wearing loose black pants and teal silk blouse with her perfectly gray hair pulled back into a classic ponytail, McGovern is stunning.

It’s May 17 and the Oscar and Emmy-nominated actor is in D.C. for one day only to do movie press and attend a special screening of the film hosted by Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the U.S. Dame Karen Pierce DCMG, Comcast NBCUniversal, and Focus Features. When I arrive at her suite, it’s 3 p.m., and she hasn’t left her Georgetown hotel filled with press and PR people all day. McGovern can’t tell me how a D.C. premiere differs from one in New York or L.A. or London, as this is her first in Washington (“I’ll have to get back to you,” she jokes). But she’s no stranger to the city. 

Though she doesn’t give me a year, McGovern says she did a play—Ring Around the Moon—at Arena Stage some years back. “So I spent some time here then.” A quick google confirms, then was in 1988. She’s been back for brief visits since. She looks out the window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue NW. “It’s so frustrating especially because it’s so gorgeous out,” she says.

As a show, Downton ran from 2010 to 2015, and won numerous awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. Four years later, the first movie was released. At the time, critics described it as a sort of homecoming. The same can be said for the latest movie, which arrived in theaters on May 20. The problem with A New Era, however, is that to succeed in telling a new tale, the film must untie storylines already nicely packaged at the show’s or movie’s end. It reminds me of something David Crane, one of the creators of Friends, said when asked about its characters: “I’d like to believe they all ended up happy, which is also one of the reasons why we always resisted the idea of doing a follow-up or a reboot. Because you’re going to do a show where, if you’re going to keep their stories going, you need conflict. I don’t want to see the episode where characters are getting divorced or, God forbid, they all come back to Central Perk for someone’s funeral.” (It’s a lesson we’ve certainly learned from the Sex and the City movies, not to mention the franchise’s And Just Like That reboot.)

For McGovern, however, A New Era offers something, well, new. “I’ve been one of the people over the years who said we gotta stop while we’re ahead,” she says. “But I never would have thought it possible to feel that there was something really fresh. It’s almost like it’s been given a shot of oxygen in this movie.”

In some ways, the film picks up where the last left off. It opens with Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) wedding to Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), who we met in the first film as a lady’s maid and secret heir to a wealthy estate. We learn Violet (Maggie Smith) is still alive and has been gifted a villa in France. “Cinema people” want to film a movie at Downton, Edith (Laura Carmichael) wants to work again, and Mary (Michelle Dockery) is annoyed with her husband’s ongoing absence. (If you’re a Matthew Goode fan, don’t even expect a cameo this time around; when asked why McGovern shrugs: “You’d have to ask his agent.”) Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) have a child, Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Andy (Michael Fox) are married, Thomas (Robert James-Collier) is still sad, gay, and alone—but far less mean, and Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finally says aloud that she likes Molesley (Kevin Doyle). In short, life goes on, and, for that alone, there’s a comfort in watching the new film.

Though it’s often described as an “upstairs, downstairs” story, much of what Downton created for viewers was a family, both blood and chosen, to root for. It’s also a story that, despite its never-ending drama, the ups and downs are tempered by British sensibility and dry wit. McGovern describes the latest story as “almost like you’ve been given a hug.”

She continues, “I just hope an audience will escape for a couple hours. I think that’s what the movie gives them. It’s sort of an injection of positivity—and that’s so important. We’re so inundated with negative news stories, negative images, a feeling of absolute hopelessness and helplessness, but somehow this family goes on and on and on.”

Courtesy of Focus Features

But even then, it feels at once like there’s too much to tell and yet not enough. The film struggles to find its pacing, which it doesn’t really do until almost two-thirds of the way into the two-hour runtime. Likewise it initially seems as if the majority of the cast are going through the motions (Jim Carter as Carson is a notable exception). To be fair, the script splits the massive clan apart for a large portion of the film, with some traveling to France to see the aforementioned villa; this is the likely culprit of the jarring scene changes. And new cast members turn on the charm: Jonathan Zaccaï as the Marquis de Montmirail and Laura Haddock as Myrna Dalgleish provide fresh humor, while Hugh Dancy (Jack Barber) brings Hollywood and a bit of romance to Downton, and Dominic West‘s Guy Dexter hints at a love story to root for.

As a devoted fan, I found myself laughing aloud time and again. During the screening at the National Portrait Gallery on May 17, the audience laughed right along with me. When the lights came on, many wiped away tears. McGovern sums it up as, “this circle of life. The new is always encroaching [in Downton], but you get a sense of the continuity, of going on… It’s reassuring,” she pauses. “I hope people are reassured.”

What’s next for Downton is unclear. McGovern admits she doesn’t know if this is the end and says there have been talks of possible prequels and spinoffs—maybe one following Thomas’ new plotline, or maybe the story of Cora and Robert’s courting. Nothing is set. What McGovern does know is that she’d like to return to theater soon. Before stepping back into Cora’s shoes, McGovern wrote and starred in the two-person play, Ava: The Secret Conversations, which premiered in London. 

“It was so much fun to do, and I loved it so much; I’d like to do it somewhere in America. But I don’t know,” she says. “As you might imagine, it’s so tough with theater right now…so it might take a while.”

Asked if she’d consider bringing the play to D.C. she enthusiastically exclaims: “Sure! If anyone would ask me I would!”

Maybe it’s not true what they say—that you can go home again—but you can let some stories have their long-awaited happily ever afters. 

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Downton Abbey: A New Era is in theaters everywhere as of May 20.