'Downton Abbey' Movie: Inside the Unexpected Romances for Tom Branson and Thomas Barrow (Exclusive)

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Speaking with ET, creator Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler break down how each storyline came to be.

Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ beloved British period drama, made a welcome return this past weekend, with an all-new chapter released in theaters. The new film, which is already a box office success, reignited a cultural phenomenon that started eight years prior when the series first premiered in the U.S. on PBS. 

Picking up just over a year after the events of the series finale, the film sees the extended Crawley family and their many, many servants reuniting as the Yorkshire country estate prepares for a royal visit by King George V and Queen Mary. In typical Downton Abbey fashion, there’s a mix of drama, romance and intrigue that spills over both upstairs and downstairs.

Notably, the film introduces two delightfully, unexpected romances for longtime characters, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). “I think it's a brilliant movie in that it takes all those characters that people love and puts them in a situation you've never seen them in, and either hilarity or drama or tears ensue,” Leech says, adding, “We know there are people that love the show, so we just hope they love this story.” 

Speaking with ET, Fellowes and director Michael Engler break down how each storyline came to be and discuss significant spoilers in the film.

Tom and Lucy 

“I realized, when I was reviewing series six, that Tom Branson was the only one that wasn’t neatly tied up and that gave me the opportunity to have a love story in our film with one of our long-running and favorite characters,” Fellowes explains, revealing that he wasn’t interested in tinkering with the marriages of Lady Mary or Edith (Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael, respectively), after each finally found happiness by the end of show. “So I wanted to make a romance for Tom.” 

That romance, it turns out, is a budding relationship with Lucy, a new character played by Tuppence Middleton first introduced as a maid for Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). The two come to Downton as part of the royal caravan. 

The arrival of Lady Bagshaw, a distant Crawley family member, immediately sets off red flags for Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), who believes she means to mess with the family inheritance. Indeed, things do get complicated when it turns out that Lucy is actually Bagshaw’s daughter. The revelation doesn’t come until late in the movie and is unbeknownst to Tom, who finds himself drawn to Lucy. 

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As fans will remember, Tom first started the series as a young chauffeur for the family before falling in love and marrying Lady Sybill. Initially running away to Ireland, the two return after she gets pregnant. Sadly, she dies after childbirth and Tom is forced to carve out his place upstairs among the Crawley family, who slowly grows to accept him as one of their own. 

“Tom’s journey in life has been so distinctive that it seemed important to find him someone that was faced by a similar experience and they would have an understanding of each other that most people outside their predicament would not and from that, really, the Lucy story grew,” Fellowes says, while Engler explains that Lucy grew up believing she was a ward of this woman. “Only when she was 18, she learned that she was part of that world,” he says, referring to an aristocratic life. 

All this time, she was isolated in a way that there is a natural attraction between her and Tom. “I very much wanted to pair him up with someone who would make him not feel isolated. Lucy understands him in a way that even Mary and Edith would not,” Fellowes adds.  

The film ends with Tom courting Lucy, whom he still believes is a maid, and the two sharing a sweet moment, dancing outside of the neighboring estate, Harewood House, where a royal ball is taking place. Violet eventually realizes that their romance may mean that the fortune stays within the family, and more importantly, at Downton. 

Of course, there’s much to be inferred about what happens next -- but it’s assumed to be a happy ending, implies Fellowes. While no sequel is officially on the table, Leech says if there was another film, “that would be great to see where they go. To see where him and Lucy end up, it would be incredible.”      

Thomas and Richard

Meanwhile, life downstairs sees Thomas finally getting to explore a romance with another man. 

Despite being a gay man throughout the entire series, Thomas has largely lived a closeted life in order to maintain his job and not be outcast by society at the time. His journey up until now has seen him attacked for being gay after he made a pass at a straight man and later attempting to cure himself of his homosexuality.  

In the film, the king and queen’s arrival brings along another new character, Richard Ellis (Max Brown), the king’s royal dresser, who quickly strikes up an intriguing friendship with Thomas. The two bond over life downstairs and agree to help Anna Bates (Joanna Froggatt) in her plan to trick the royal servants into leaving Downton. After, the two men decide to go for a drink, but before Richard arrives, Thomas meets another man who invites him to a gay men’s speakeasy, which is raided by the police. Using his position in the royal household, Richard gets Thomas out of jail and reveals to him that he’s also gay. 

“The main thing was to say was even if he was at last given a moment of romance, which after six years he’s kind of earned, even then, it didn’t mean being gay in 1927 was easy,” Fellowes says, wanting to reflect the realities of being gay at the time. “It was a life under threat, a life where you were permanently in danger and a life of high risk. I hope, despite giving Barrow a reasonably good time in the film, we haven’t lost that element really.” 

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By the end of the film, the two share a stolen kiss before Richard gives Thomas a token of affection to serve as a reminder of him until they meet again. “In the end, who knows when they’ll ever see each other again?” Engler says, suggesting that “they might cross paths again or they might not, given their lives and given the society.” 

Crediting both actors for creating a palpable chemistry onscreen, the director adds, “They were really happy to be the people to present a story like this. They were very open to being vulnerable within it.”

Even if their interaction doesn’t result in as clearcut of a happy ending as it does for Tom and Lucy, Fellowes says there was a larger lesson for Thomas: he’s not alone. “That was part of the revelation with him, there were people he could just relax with,” Fellowes explains. “Thomas has never connected with a community like himself. That’s the principle message.”

Downton Abbey is now in theaters.