Downton Abbey: A New Era
Despite its title, the second 'Downton Abbey' movie serves up more of the same upstairs-downstairs dramas — but Maggie Smith still steals every scene she's in.
April 28, 2022
The movies have come to Downton Abbey and Violet Crawley, the acid-tongued Dowager Countess of Grantham so delightfully played by Maggie Smith (The Lady in the Van) since 2010, is none too fussed about it. "Hard same," all but the most devoted fans of the upstairs-downstairs TV drama may find themselves thinking as she expresses that sentiment — at least where Downton Abbey: A New Era, an exercise in extending the series/raking in more box-office cash, is concerned. Violet, as only she can, declares she'd "rather eat pebbles" than watch a film crew at work within the extravagant walls of her family's home. The rest of us mightn't be quite so venomous, but that's not the same as being entertained. The storyline involving said film crew is actually one of the most engaging parts of A New Era; however, the fact that much of it is clearly ripped off from cinematic classic Singin' in the Rain speaks volumes, and gratingly.
When the first Downton Abbey flick brought its Yorkshire mansion-set shenanigans to cinemas back in 2019, it felt unnecessary, too, but also offered what appeared to be a last hurrah and a final chance to spend time with beloved characters. Now, the repeat effort feels like keeping calm and soldiering on because there's more pounds to be made. Don't believe the title: while A New Era proclaims that change is afoot, and some of its narrative dramas nod to the evolving world when the 1920s were coming to a close, the movie itself is happy doing what Downton Abbey always has — and in a weaker version. There's zero reason other than financial gain for this film to unspool its tale in theatres rather than as three TV episodes, which is what it may as well have tacked together. Well, perhaps there's one: having Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery, Anatomy of a Scandal) proclaim that "we have to be able to enter the 1930s with our heads held high" and set the expectation that more features will probably follow.
A New Era begins with a wedding, picking up where its predecessor left off as former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) marries Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton, Mank) with everyone expected — the well-to-do Crawleys and their relatives, plus their maids, butlers, cooks, footmen and other servants — in attendance. But the film really starts with two revelations that disrupt the Downton status quo. Firstly, Violet receives word that she's inherited a villa in the south of France from an ex-paramour, who has recently passed away. His surviving wife (Nathalie Baye, Call My Agent!) is displeased with the arrangement, threatening lawsuits, but his son (Jonathan Zaccaï, The White Crow) invites the Crawleys to visit to hash out the details. Secondly, a movie production wants to use Downton for a shoot, which the pragmatic Mary talks the family into because — paralleling the powers-that-be behind A New Era itself — the aristocratic brood would like the money.
With Violet's health waning, she stays home while son Robert (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington 2) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, The Commuter) journey to the Riviera — as part of a cohort that also includes retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter, Swimming with Men), who's determined to teach his French counterparts British standards. And, as the Dowager Countess remains in Yorkshire exclaiming she'd "rather earn a living down a mine" than make movies, potential family secrets are bubbling up abroad. That subplot takes a cue or two from Mamma Mia!; Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes must've watched several musicals while scripting. Violet also notes that she "thought the best thing about films is that I couldn't hear them", because the production helmed by Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy, Late Night), and led by stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West, The Pursuit of Love) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock, Transformers: The Last Knight), has hit a period-appropriate snag: talkies are the new hot thing, but their flick is silent.
2022 marks two decades since Fellowes won an Oscar for writing what remains his finest achievement yet: the fellow upstairs-downstairs affair Gosford Park. It doesn't do A New Era's viewers much good to dwell on that fact while watching his latest, which is directed by My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold and Goodbye Christopher Robin's Simon Curtis as if he simply had a job to get on with. Noticeably, despite the lavish setting and decor that's a fixed part of the franchise, as well as the handsome costuming, Curtis' vision of Downton looks flat and functional rather than gleaming — almost like being stuck with a TV with the always-abhorrent motion-smoothing settings left on. The French-set scenes appear lighter and brighter, purely due to the switch from old-world stateliness to coastal airiness, but hardly dazzle visually either.
If a Downton Abbey movie doesn't make the most of its bigger canvas, serves up stories cobbled together from other films, gets soapier otherwise and doesn't have all that much of Maggie Smith in it — even if she makes the utmost of the time she does get on-screen — it's always going to prove a lesser jaunt. That can't be patched over by the winking knowingness of tasking Downton's residents with verbalising how inelegant it is to make a picture there, while also recognising how great the cash is; instead of tongue-in-cheek, that meta choice just lands awkwardly. And, although the returning cast do exactly what their parts call for, with so many players to shoehorn in this can never be a performance-driven piece. Unsurprisingly, some of the feature's best work comes from its newcomers, with Dancy and West both fine additions — and enjoying romantic threads that, while thin, don't just tick boxes as the majority of the screenplay does elsewhere.
Also blatant: that the servants are firmly shortchanged, but butler Barrow (Rob James-Collier, Fate: The Winx Saga), kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera, The Queen's Gambit) and Mary's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt, Angela Black) fare best. Sometimes, A New Era imitates thumbing through a photo album — spotting adored faces fleetingly, recalling old times in the process and, well, that's it. For the most ardent of Downton Abbey devotees, getting another go-around with the show's figures may be enjoyable enough, but this film is all about that easy comfort, nostalgia and familiarity above all else. It's there when John Lunn's score kicks in early, lingers through the all-too-neat ups and downs, and remains when Dockery virtually announces that if this flick does big-enough box-office business, then more's likely to come.
Top image: Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC.