'Downton Abbey' Movie: Inside Maggie Smith's Moving Final Scene

[This story contains spoilers from the Downton Abbey movie.]

If Downton Abbey finds success at the box office, the team behind the Emmy-winning TV series and its theatrical spinoff have said they are hopeful for a big-screen sequel. But, either way, the film may be the last hurrah for a treasured character. 

The Downton Abbey movie's ending signals a changing of the guards, effectively setting up the franchise for a next phase should it continue. During a moving scene between Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), and her dearest granddaughter Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) at the end of the film, the deliciously sharp-tongued Violet puts her lethal wit aside to confess to her beloved Mary that she is sick and "may not" have long to live. "I’m leaving the family and the place that I treasure in talented hands," she tells Mary, calling her the future of Downton.

The emotional scene between the grandmother and granddaughter pair of Downton implies that, should the story continue beyond 1927 (the series has spanned 15 years since it began), the upstairs-downstairs saga would forge ahead without Dame Smith.

"It was really a question of passing on the baton to that next generation," producer Gareth Neame recently told The Hollywood Reporter of both the weight of the scene and the implication it hands down for Smith's Emmy-winning character. "Whether it’s her last movie, her last Downton movie, whatever, I don’t know. But there had to be that sense of the next generation are now in charge. It’s a moving scene."

After tears are exchanged, Violet and Mary re-join their guests for a sendoff in the ballroom as Downton continues to celebrate the visiting King George V and Queen Mary. The plot of the movie centers around the Crawley family and their loyal servants prepping the famed Yorkshire estate for the royal visit. As her sprawling family waltzes around her, the Michael Engler-directed film hangs on Violet's facial expressions while the Downton matriarch takes in the world she has created.

When the Masterpiece PBS and ITV series wrapped in 2015, rumors of a film were in the air, but not yet confirmed. “I’m just surprised that I got to the end," the legendary actress quipped at the time; she later suggested the potential film should open with her character's funeral. When series creator Julian Fellowes and Neame began to make calls about the film, however, the cast agreed in a domino effect, with Smith being the final castmember to sign on. "She’s the 'Notorious MAG.' It wouldn’t be right if she wasn’t last," Allen Leech (Tom Branson) had told THR.

Though the film's ending seems to imply that Smith would not be back in her usual capacity, the team is not yet ready to rule her out of a potential sequel appearance. 

"The thing about Maggie is that she always says she's done and she’ll never do it again. And then she does," Engler tells THR. "And I think she enjoyed doing it. I think she enjoyed being back with all those people and, not that she needed to creatively, but just that she felt such a kinship with so many of them. Some people she had known for years and then all these young people who were all new in their careers where she got to be a part of their early growth, and it meant a lot to her."

Engler said he wanted the scene to function both ways — as a goodbye if this were the last time viewers see Violet, or as a precursor to the end if there is a sequel. "You just take the story on face value and get as much out of it as you can, and make sure that if a cure is found, we won’t go, 'Wait a minute, that makes no sense!'" he says of Violet's fate.

And, most importantly, it seems that even Smith may not have her mind made up yet on if she would return. The star, THR can reveal, tweaked the line of dialogue delivering the news about her health — giving hope to fans worldwide.

"The scripted dialogue was, 'I do not have long to live,'” recalls producer Liz Trubridge, who was in the room when the Smith and Dockery scene was filmed. "And Maggie said that line on every one of Michelle’s takes. But when it came to her own take, she said, 'I may not have long to live.'"

She continues, "I think it was very deliberate. She said it every time. If we do another one, it depends when it’s set. But if it were near enough and it would be believable, then we would see if she was up for it. I don’t think you can jump too far ahead because then everybody starts aging and none of us are very keen on aging everyone up. So it has to be relatively close."

When asked about the scene, Fellowes kept mum as to not spoil the audience's interpretation. "I thought it worked well in the way they played it, really," is all he would divulge of the actresses' sit-down. 

Still, for Smith's scene partner, the weight was not lost. 

"It’s always a privilege to do any scene with Maggie," Dockery, who says she would be on board for a sequel, tells THR. "You really feel like you up your game when you’re working with her. But that particular moment in the movie was very special, and it was one of those scenes where I was very aware of quite how special that scene was."

Downton Abbey is playing now in theaters and the Focus Features film is opening well ahead of expectations.