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Hugh Bonneville: Robert has 'existential crisis' in latest 'Downton' drama

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Hugh Bonneville: Robert has 'existential crisis' in latest 'Downton' drama
From left to right, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael will be seen in "Downton Abbey: A New Era," opening in theaters Friday. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

NEW YORK, May 20 (UPI) -- Downton Abbey always has been about the wealthy Crawley family's attempts to evolve with changing times. But the TV show's second Julian Fellowes-penned film sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, is particularly challenging for Hugh Bonneville's character, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham.

"He has quite an existential crisis in the film, which, for Robert, who is used to not expressing too much, is quite revealing And it takes place largely in the South of France, this unpacking of emotion," Bonneville told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

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"The way Julian charts each character's journey is always so interesting, but he has given Robert quite a journey to go on, questioning both his own place in life and his marriage. Certainly, in the first film, I felt really underused, so it was lovely to have something deep to go into this time around."

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Opening in theaters Friday, the movie is set in 1928 and finds Robert, steward of the cash-strapped titular British estate, making the difficult decision to accept a lucrative financial offer to allow a Hollywood film production to shoot at Downton, much to the chagrin of most of the family and the excitement of the household staff.

At the same time, Robert's ailing mother, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), inherits a villa in the South of France from a mysterious man, prompting Robert, his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who has secrets of her own, their daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, and their son-in-law Branson (Allen Leech) to head out on holiday to inspect the new property, leaving Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) at Downton's helm.

Bonneville joked that the actors who went to France sent their less fortunate castmates in England photos of themselves relaxing in the sun on lounge chairs, and then were surprised when they never received replies.

"We wanted to keep them abreast of how much fun we were having," he quipped.

Adopting a more serious tone, he said: "We shot all of the stuff in the U.K. first, and then went to France for the holiday; for the second bit of shooting."

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Along for the ride to France, but determined not to enjoy it, is decorum-obsessed, retired Downton butler Carson (Jim Carter), who thinks speaking louder and showing people of other cultures the proper way to do things is how to survive being away from home.

Bonneville said Robert and Carson are "cut from the same cloth."

"They both find a film being made at Downton Abbey hideous, but going abroad, there is a nice little setup where Mrs. Hughes and Mary want Carson out of the way or else he will just grumble the whole time," the actor added.

"Robert seizes the opportunity to go to the South of France to avoid being there when the film is being made, and both Mary and Mrs. Hughes make out that Carson is essential to Lord Grantham when he travels, so Carson ends up coming along, too. It's a nice little plot device."

The story line is an example of art imitating life since Hollywood is seen coming to Downton in much the same way the Downton TV and film franchise descended on the actual Highclere Castle a decade ago and hasn't completely left.

"It was a sympathetic nod to Lord and Lady Carnarvon by Julian Fellowes and probably voices the couple's very own attitudes about having these ghastly people traipsing all over their house, but let's face it, the roof needs fixing," Bonneville reasoned.

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"We certainly managed to fix Lord and Lady Carnarvon's roof for a while to come. Even though we must be a pain in the neck to have there for X number of weeks per year over this last decade, I think, in a way, they are probably quite grateful, too."

Bonneville said Robert ultimately gets a kick out of how the household staff and Mary react to not only to having celebrities at Downton, but also to get the chance to work as extras and play aristocrats in the movie within a movie.

"Nothing would surprise him about Mary because she is so capable, but it is, obviously, great fun," he said. "Seeing the staff of the house take on a whole new role was delicious."

Asked about one character's prediction that Lady Mary would turn into the formidable Violet as she ages, Bonneville replied, "It's all about guiding the ship.

"It's just true that this household is being navigated by the female characters and let the stupid men think they are running things," he added. "The idea that Mary will turn into Violet -- I don't know that she has got quite the same wit, but she can have a good stab at it."

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Since Violet is in the twilight of her life, Robert is looking toward the future when he truly is the head of the Crawley family and custodian of Downton Abbey's legacy. Parallels may be drawn to the current dynamic between the real-life, 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth II and her heir, Prince Charles.

"This is a very special year in the U.K. with the Jubilee coming up very shortly and the sense that Prince Charles is, before the decade is out, going to be king," Bonneville said.

"The wheel turns onward. Obviously, it is a different family setup, but it is true in everyone's life. The seasons come and the seasons change. As with the royal family, things change at a glacial pace, and I don't think the world of Downton Abbey is going to be rocked to its foundation when change does come."

The New Era film, which Bonneville describes as "two hours of pure escapism," is bookended by emotional scenes that show the Crawley family and the loyal servants who work for them marking important milestones together.

Bonneville acknowledged these moments that bring the entire, enormous cast together are among his favorites, even though they are a nightmare for the wardrobe and makeup departments to arrange.

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"That is what has always been the strength of the show -- the ensemble and the central character is that iconic building," he said.

"It was particularly special this time around because we were in the middle of the pandemic -- and let's face it, we're still not out of it -- but we were emerging from lockdown when we came to make it, so we were very appreciative that we were working and working on a project that we knew -- or at least we hoped -- would have a ready-made audience looking forward to it."

The Emmy-winning TV series, Downton Abbey, ran for six seasons starting in 2010 before beginning its life on the big screen in 2019 with the first Downton Abbey movie.

Bonneville attributed the franchise's success -- and massive, global, multi-generational audience -- to the love and light it offers viewers in dark and contentious times.

"The message has been received of affection, not only for the material itself, but for the era in which it was first watched," the actor said.

"It's seven years since we finished the show. That was, in Britain, pre-Brexit, pre- the divisions that came, if I may say, the arrival of Mr. Trump, pre-COVID," he said.

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"It seems almost like a golden age -- pre-2015, when the world's [population] was perhaps a little kinder to each other. We have become more divisive, and there is something unifying about this show. It's written from a point of view that human beings try to be good."

He added: "There is this underlying compassion and warmth. People do bad things, they do wrong things, but, ultimately, they are trying to get by. I think that's what's resonated around the world."

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