How ‘Downton Abbey’ Filmed Maggie Smith’s Violet Death
Spoiler Warning: The following story includes plot spoilers for “Downton Abbey: A New Era”, the sequel to the film which is currently playing in cinemas nationwide. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, check out our review and feature on “Downton” star Michelle Dockery instead.
For six seasons and two movies, Maggie Smith, Dowager Countess of Grantham’s Violet Crawley has been both the emotional and comedic center of “Downton Abbey.” The deadpan family matriarch was always prepared with a body double or a dose of sound advice, and she was a fan favorite in the beloved ensemble cast for many.
In “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” Violet arrives on her deathbed and says a final goodbye — a plot that left audiences in tears. But the decision to say goodbye to the character has been in the works for some time, as hinted at the end of 2019’s debut feature “Downton Abbey.”
“In the first movie, we kind of hinted that she was in her final chapter, if you will,” says screenwriter Julian Fellowes. “And that didn’t seem like enough to me. I felt like she had been such an iconic character from the start of the show and was so much a part of her big hit that I felt we all wanted to do so much more. So we decided it was time. It’s quite moving, really. I know I’m writing it and it’s my fault, but these characters become so real to you over the years.
Writing Smith out of the franchise was as much a practical decision as a narrative choice. The actress, 87, has only signed on to each season of the original series on an annual basis, according to producer Gareth Neame – and it was never inevitable that she would stick around forever. Neame also thinks of “Downton Abbey” as a book, with various chapters that need beginnings and endings. The filmmakers wanted “Downton Abbey: A New Era” to feel conclusive while opening the door to future storylines.
“If this was going to be the last movie we made – I don’t know if it will be, there could be more – you want to make sure you bring the characters to a conclusion,” says Neame. “And we’re telling the story of a family, and that story involves births, marriages and deaths, and the passing of the baton from generation to generation.
“We obviously set that up in the first movie with the news that his health was declining. Where we’re going in this movie and the eventual death of the character I think gives [the story] the bittersweet element. We always have the mixture of tears and laughter, that’s what makes a family. Families constantly go through sad and happy events.
He adds: “The character’s passing will be sad but appreciated by the public. [People have] commented that it seems timely. Although it’s incredibly upsetting, it seems like the right way to tell the story.
Violet’s death comes near the end of the film, after a storyline about her past brings part of the family to the south of France. As she dies, Violet’s loved ones, including her recurring rival Isobel (Penelope Wilton), gather around her bed to say goodbye.
The scene, shot in a set on a sound stage, was both technically and emotionally difficult to film. Director Simon Curtis, who first joined the franchise on “A New Era,” describes the experience as “one of the most emotional days on set I’ve ever had.” There was a lot of talk about where specific characters should stand in the play and who should be together, some of which had been scripted by Fellowes. The scene was shot out of order because Curtis didn’t want the actors crying unnecessarily for an entire day. Instead, he saved the big reaction shots for last.
“The two sisters can’t cry all day, can they? remembers Curtis. “The visual math of shooting this scene was almost the biggest job the cinematographer and I had to do.”
“The hardest part was keeping my emotions at bay during those scenes and trying to be Mary in those scenes and not Michelle because it was such an emotional day,” recalls Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary. “The silence on set – you could hear a pin drop. And it was built. I think it was halfway through filming, but that anticipation leading up to it was so emotional. I was a little dreading it, actually. She has been part of the past 12 years. We just had to hold back our tears before we could let them go.
“I remember Simon Curtis at one point coming up to me and Laura [Carmichael], in this shot where we kissed. I remember Simon said, “You can quit now. It makes me emotional just talking about it.
Hugh Bonneville, who plays Violet’s son Robert, the Earl of Grantham, says reshooting the scene over and over again from different angles meant the cast didn’t have a unique emotional experience. Despite the technical nuance, however, the cast and crew wanted to maintain what Bonneville calls “respect and tenderness” on set. After the scene was over, the cast and crew gathered in Smith’s dressing room for a toast.
“The challenge is to preserve a sense of respect in the scene like that,” Bonneville says. “You don’t have people yelling at you, ‘Move the camera this way.’ People had a certain dignity and a certain calm about it because it will be an iconic moment, certainly for us as a cast. [But] I think the collective experience allows you to feel the emotions that all the characters are going through.
Of course, Fellowes couldn’t conclude Violet’s story without a final zinger. Before Violet dies peacefully, she warns maid Gladys Denker (Sue Johnston): “Stop crying, Denker. I can’t hear myself dying.
“I remember when I found her relieved to have found her last line,” says Fellowes. “And I wanted it to be funny because I thought the scene would be pretty teary, which it actually is. But it’s nice to just have a laugh in the middle. I thought it was good for her to emerge undefeated.
It was also essential to Fellowes that Violet remain an important part of the family until the very end.
“Violet lived a long and interesting life and was always a towering matriarchal figure, so she never had to feel helpless,” Fellowes says. “I think one of the saddest things about old age can be the disempowerment of people who, in fact in their prime, were interesting and helpful, smart and productive. And all of a sudden you make them feel like this rather heavy person who has to have a cup of tea.
“In a way, I hope Violet is a return statement. She never became a burden that way, and she was always consulted until the moment of her death.
Violet’s elaborate funeral procession in the scene that follows was based on the actual funeral of Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, held in Chatsworth in 2014. All the farmers lined the procession route in Chatsworth, which inspired Fellowes to do the same for Violette.
Some crew members even joined the scene as extras, which was another technical feat for Curtis. The filmmakers brought in the motorized hearse also used in the Fellowes’ “Gosford Park” screenplay and carefully choreographed the movement of the camera over the faces of the family and staff. This scene was filmed outside Highclere Castle, famous for Downton Abbey.
“The biggest thing is they all love Maggie, they all loved working with her,” Curtis said of the cast. “It was the end of an era. We just walked through all these faces [and] there is no gap between them as actors and as characters. Emotion can be read on their faces. And as a director, you just count your lucky stars when you watch this on a monitor.
Despite the tragedy of Violet’s passing, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that younger generations of the Crawley family will pick up the slack. It was important to everyone that the movie leave a sense of optimism in its wake, as the franchise has done with its past landmark deaths.
“The show is a hot blanket – many have described it that way,” Bonneville claims. “You feel a sense of comfort when you hear this music start and you think, ‘I took away for an hour the trials and tribulations of the world we live in. But nevertheless, he explores real human emotions and does not shy away from them. It can be very funny, but it can deserve its pathos and pain.
“I think that’s probably one of the reasons for his survival over the years, that people appreciate Julian telling three-dimensional stories. In every life, a rain must fall.