When we last checked in on the aristocratic Crawley clan and their busy household under stairs in 2019 Downton Abbey spinoff movies, a royal visit attracted more attention than a swiftly thwarted assassination attempt, the gay butler’s secret was narrowly spared the harsh gaze of exposure, and a headstrong cousin shaggy feathers by giving her property to a maid who turned out to be her illegitimate daughter, just in time for a whisper of romance with another upgraded servant who also shocked toffs far back then. Heaven!
Despite all this, the film managed to be a resolute low-stakes comfort food, a sugary dessert whipped up by series creator Julian Fellowes to appease fans who still want more after six seasons. Despite the promise of a radical change in its title, Downton Abbey: A New Era is much more of the same, which would be just fine with fans of the long-running PBS hit.
Downton Abbey: A New Era
The bottom line
At this time, exclusively for the believers.
The pleasures remain intact – the dresses, the hats, the upscale dinners, the enviable property, the sparkling replica. Well, maybe the latter not quite so much, as the script seems like something Fellowes struck off during the tea breaks on the set of his new dress opera, The gilded age. Even the sharp bons-mods delivered with crisp spirit by Maggie Smith’s widowed Countess, Violet Grantham, do not match the sour precision of her best remarks. And the direction of Simon Curtis – the man who made even Helen Mirren dull Woman in gold – rarely rises above usable.
Still, the chance to renew acquaintances with the vast ensemble of beloved characters will be rewarding enough for many if the worldwide $ 194 million box office for the previous film is any indication. These characters are deftly reintroduced into their various groupings in wedding photographs at the festive village wedding of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the class-jumping former help mentioned earlier.
But the most important development in the plot here is Violet’s legacy of a villa from the French Riviera from an ancient flame, the recently deceased Marquis de Montmiral, with whom she spent an idyllic week there six decades ago before any of them got married . The Montmiral family intends to contest the claim, but when asked if she was considering denying the inheritance, Violet says, “Does it look like I would say no to a villa in the south of France?” Given the recent film’s revelation that her health is declining rapidly, the widow Countess plans to leave the villa to her granddaughter Sybbie (Fifi Hart), the child of former driver Tom and his late first wife, Lady Sybil.
When Violet is unable to travel, her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and a family and servants, including the retired butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), to France. That tour sets off all sorts of questions about Violet’s past, Robert’s origins and the legitimacy of his title, Lord Grantham. Many desperate glances follow, but not from Robert’s wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who maintains a blissful smile even as she worries about her own health anxiety. Gracious!
Back in Downton it is crowded when a film crew from The British Lion Company arrives to record a feature called The player. Everyone is comfortably shaken by a bunch of bohemian actors soiling the sacred excavations. Terrible! But the practical and progressive Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) justifies that the placement fee will pay for urgent roof repairs.
Since 1929, silent films are on the way out, a shift that neither the director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy, with unfortunate ballet dancer hair), nor the studio seem to have considered before they got started. It requires quick-thinking improvisation from Lady Mary, with the unexpected help of former footman who became a schoolteacher, Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), a crazy avid moviegoer. Hooray!
Fellows to a certain extent borrow from themselves in Gosford Park by mixing filmmakers with the locals in the upper crust to observe the class divide and then erasing it while masters and servants strike together to overcome all obstacles. The author also steals from Singin ‘in the Rain by having a glamorous blonde head lady, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), whose harsh working-class accent makes her shake upon the arrival of talking pictures. Suave leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) is more adaptable, which may prove beneficial when he takes a shine at the lone gay butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier).
Curtis and editor Adam Recht cross between Yorkshire and France with a galumless lack of grace, often accompanied by a delicate eruption of John Lunn’s lush orchestral score and someone in the middle of laughter. Or of gloomy tones and a character who is deeply concerned about wrinkled forehead. The whole thing is a bit mechanical and softer than ever, especially since there are few problems that cannot be quickly solved in a manuscript that diligently ties it all together in neat loops.
Only in the moving final scenes does real pathos intrude, but even that is cut into corny summation dialogue bordering on sweet self-parody. “I suppose individual Crawleys come and go, but the family lives on,” sighs Lady Mary. Whether it means one Downton Abbey threequel will depend on how much the overqualified cast is content to keep returning to roles that have now become animated props. It seems irresponsible to give actors of the caliber of Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton so little to do. But in an age of infinitely recycled IP, is any cash cow ever really put on grass? Unthinkable!