It’s been just over a year since those of us in the U.S. watched the final episode of the final season of Downton Abbey. If you’ve suffered through withdrawal as I have, you may have looked for solace in other Masterpiece/PBS costume dramas, such as Victoria, The Crown, Indian Summers, Home Fires or Mercy Street. But, no matter how much pomp and circumstance we relish — or how many former Downton stars you may spot in any of the British imports — nothing quite lives up to the Grantham family. (But, did you notice that Queen Elizabeth’s beloved private secretary in The Crown was also Lady Edith’s better-late-than-never bridegroom?)
Our hearts may always belong to Downton Abbey, but the show’s wonderful cast has moved on to new projects. Here’s what some of its women are doing.
Lady Sybil was the first Crawley to leave the nest, which is an optimistic euphemism, given that she died gruesomely in childbirth midway through season three. Shortly afterwards, lovely Jessica Brown Findlay secured the romantic lead role in Hollywood’s Winter’s Tale. Based on the acclaimed 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, the movie also featured Colin Farrell and Russell Crowe. Unfortunately, the film was a financial and critical flop, recouping less than $11 million of its estimated $60 million cost. As disappointing as that must have been, the actress still defended her decision to leave Downton. “I was much more afraid of becoming too comfortable in the Lady Sybil role than I was of leaving it. . . I didn’t want to play Sybil for years and then discover it was the only thing I could do.” Fortunately, her recent projects appear to be more promising.
In This Beautiful Fantastic, Findlay plays reclusive Bella Brown, an aspiring author and illustrator. Her landlord threatens to evict her unless she gets her neglected garden into shape. Tom Wilkinson costars as her neighbor, an irascible widower who becomes her unlikely ally. Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) woos shy Bella with the help of a steampunk robotic bird and their mutual love of libraries. The film is in only limited release, but you can expect to find it on demand or on DVD this summer.
Meanwhile, proving beyond a doubt that playing Sybil isn’t the only thing she can do, Findlay is also starring in the bawdy new series Harlots, available on Hulu. Set in London in the 18th century, the show focuses on two brothels and competing madams Margaret (Samantha Morton) and Lydia (Lesley Manville), who’ll stop at nothing to defend their territory (and client base). Findlay plays Margaret’s daughter, “one of the brightest stars in London’s firmament.” But, will she choose love or the family business? If it all sounds a bit exploitive, don’t worry. Harlots is written, directed and produced by women who don’t shy away from the ugly underbelly of the sex trade.
Sybil’s sister Lady Edith, who after six seasons, finally earned her happy ending (Thank you, Julian Fellowes!), was portrayed in all her pathos by accomplished stage actress Laura Carmichael. Although never the “brightest star” at Downton, the actress has since appeared in a 4-episode arc in the British police series Marcella, and as Rosamunde Pike’s sister in this season’s A United Kingdom.
In the dark comedy Burn Burn Burn (released on DVD here earlier in 2017), Carmichael along with costar Sally Phillips (the Bridget Jones trilogy) set off to fulfill the last wishes of their friend. That friend (whose ashes are in Tupperware in the glove compartment) wanted to revisit four different locales that were meaningful in his life. In the tradition of the best roadtrip movies, the journey in this respectable indie becomes one of self-discovery. Director Chanya Button also makes her feature-length debut.