Dame Maggie Smith’s 7 greatest roles to celebrate Dowager Countess’s return in Downton Abbey: A New Era

Everyone's favourite period costume drama returns to the big screen this month when Downton Abbey: A New Era sashays elegantly into Cineworld cinemas (29 April). Directed by Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin), the second movie adaptation of Julian Fellowes' popular TV franchise comes three years after Downton Abbey, a film that grossed an impressive $194 million (£149 million) at the global box office. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era reunites most of the old faces in an epic adventure that sees them journey to the South of France to investigate the mystery of Dowager Countess's newly inherited villa. The snooty matriarch is once again played by Dame Maggie Smith, an actress whose glittering CV spans eight decades and more than 60 films. To celebrate the legendary star's amazing career, we decided to take a look back at some of her greatest ever performances...

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Dame Maggie played the titular role in Ronald Neame's adaptation of Muriel Spark's classic novel, excelling as the maverick teacher whose overly romanticised views on life bring her into conflict with her school's austere headmistress. Indeed, so impressive was her performance that she scooped the Oscar for Best Actress – the first of her two Academy Awards to date. She almost missed out on the film altogether, though. After she turned down the chance to play Brodie in the 1966 West End play, the role went to Vanessa Redgrave – and as a consequence, Redgrave was first choice to portray the teacher in the subsequent movie. Luckily for Maggie, her fellow Brit declined the offer.



2. California Suite (1978)

Adapted from a screenplay by Neil Simon, Herbert Ross's star-studded comedy saw Dame Maggie playing Diana Barrie, a fictional actress whose first Oscar nomination gives her hope that she might be able to resurrect her faltering career. However, with the big night approaching and her marriage unravelling before her eyes, she starts to spin out of control. Though Barrie eventually misses out on the prestigious gong, Dame Maggie fared somewhat better – her performance earned her the second Oscar of her career, this time for Best Supporting Actress. Coincidentally, prior to the awards ceremony, the British actress stayed in the same hotel as her character did in the film.



3. Death on the Nile (1978)

Forty-four years before Kenneth Branagh brought Agatha Christie's classic whodunit to the big screen, we had John Guillermin's adaptation, a film that united such Hollywood luminaries as Peter Ustinov, Jane Birkin, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow and David Niven. Dame Maggie played a nurse called Miss Bowers – a role recreated by Dawn French in Branagh's recent version – and though she didn't win an Oscar this time, she was nominated for a BAFTA. She obviously enjoyed the experience of appearing in a whodunit, as she appeared in another Agatha Christie adaptation – Evil Under the Sun – just four years later.




4. Hook (1991)

The evergreen actress played Granny Wendy in Steven Spielberg's charming take on the iconic J.M. Barrie novel, appearing alongside Dustin Hoffman as the titular Captain Hook, Robin Williams as Peter Banning/Peter Pan, Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell, and Bob Hoskins as Mr Smee. We say 'evergreen', but Dame Maggie was actually only 56 years old at the time of filming, and had to be aged with make-up so that she'd look 92. The effort paid off, as Hook ended up taking $300 million (£229 million) at the worldwide box office, as well as being nominated for five Oscars.



5. The Secret Garden (1993)

Frances Hodgson Burnett's poignant novel has been adapted for the big screen on no fewer than five occasions. The third of those versions saw Dame Maggie playing Lord Craven's housekeeper Mrs Medlock in a film directed by Agnieszka Holland. Since the movie's four main child actors were unknown at the time, it was felt that a big name was needed to give the film more chance of success – so in came Maggie Smith, fresh from her appearance in the global smash hit Sister Act. It turned out to be a smart move all round – not only was The Secret Garden lauded by critics, its most senior star also received a BAFTA nomination for her performance.




6. The Harry Potter series (2001-2011)

The cast of the Harry Potter films read like a Who's Who of British actors. So it was perhaps inevitable that Dame Maggie should add her considerable talents to the famous franchise, the Essex-born star playing Professor McGonagall in all eight films. That would be gruelling by anyone's standards, but Dame Maggie had even more to contend with during the filming of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) – the actress, then 74, had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was undergoing a course of chemotherapy. Dame Maggie battled through it, later telling The Times: "I was hairless. I had no problem getting the wig on. I was like a boiled egg."



7. The Lady in the Van (2015)

Based on Alan Bennett's memoir of the same name, Nicholas Hytner's comedy-drama was one of the British film industry's biggest hits of 2015. The 'lady' in question was Mary Shepherd, an elderly woman who lived on the playwright's drive in London for 15 years – and who better to portray her than Dame Maggie Smith? Not only did the then 80-year-old actress have the right profile, she'd also played the part in the original London theatre production in 1999. While she would've known the role like the back of her hand, she later admitted that being cooped up in the back of a van for weeks on end wasn't as easy as it had been 16 years earlier, pointing out that it was "a long time ago and [she] could handle it back then".



Downton Abbey: A New Era will be showing at Cineworld cinemas from 29 April. To book your tickets, click here. Let us know what you're most looking forward to about the new film by tweeting us @cineworld.