If you thought sound disrupted the silent era, wait until you see modernity invade British aristocracy. Downton Abbey: A New Era sees the beloved franchise return in grand fashion. Change is in the air at Downton Abbey as social attitudes become fresher and cultural moors loosen. Downton Abbey: A New Era probably won’t win any new enthusiasts, but the second film follow-up to Julian Fellowes’ hit soap arguably delivers much for fans to love. For a series that jumped the shark in its fourth season, staying fresh at this point is a blessing. But Downton Abbey doesn’t miss a beat as it enjoys renewed life on the big screen. Like the first film, A New Era plays like an extended Christmas special from the series. It’s more of the same, but with as confident a baby step into the future as the Dowager will permit.
Fans might want to revisit the first Downton Abbey film since A New Era follows many of the new characters who were introduced outside the series. (Or, if you’re like this reviewer who had vivid memories of Violet Crawley kicking the bucket, but was really just confused after watching the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel during lockdown, a return is advised.) A New Era resumes right where Downton Abbey left off as Tom Branson says “I do” to Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Their marriage, however, coincides with a gift of controversy. The Dowager (Maggie Smith) receives news that she’s inherited a posh villa on the French Riviera. Apparently, she had a fling with a French count before marrying the old Lord Grantham. Memories of Violet in her prime left the Frenchman sentimental. Violet’s feeling mushy, too, as he bestows the villa upon Tom’s daughter, Sybbie. Cue a family trip to France.
The English Are Coming
Most of the Crawley family jaunts off to sunny France to inspect the new digs. However, a saucy secret comes with the villa. Violet explains that her beau’s widow (Nathalie Baye) isn’t pleased about the arrangement. She won’t give up the villa easily. Cue a proper English/French war.
Another war brews back at Downton. The folks who stayed behind are taking one for the team at the request of a film crew. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) assumes her growing role as head of household and masterminds a plan to let the cameras roll. Downton desperately needs the money and the sum offered by the dashing director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), will fix the leaky roof. Even the Dowager approves the , which transaction to avoid further singin’ in the rain.
The film crew has the servants at Downton star struck. They’re rabid that A-list names of the silver screen like Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) will be on location. The former sets hearts a-flutter while the latter has maids fighter over furs to unpack. However, when Miss Dalgleish opens her mouth and gives everyone a taste of an accent born far from the rankings of Grantham birthrights, even Lord Grantham knows that time is running out for silent cinema.
So Many Storylines
The film thread of A New Era is easily the highlight. Film buffs will relish Downton’s playful throwback to the transitional phase of silent films to talkies. Fellowes’ screenplay smartly avoids exaggerating the tumult of the talkies. For all the hullabaloo, history generally notes a quick adaptation to new technology. (Let’s face it: nobody wanted to sit through another intolerable Al Jolson movie.) When Barber learns that his producers want a talkie, production is in limbo. Not only does the crew face an entirely new shoot, but also its leading lady hardly fits the profile of the aristocratic debutante she portrays—at least, when she opens her mouth. A New Era riotously evokes (or steals) the folly of Lina Lamont as Myrna opens her mouth. Leave it to Downton to make things shipshape, though, and A New Era really hits its stride as the Upstairs/Downstairs dynamic meets Hollywood magic.
Downton Abbey: A New Era admittedly has more storylines than a single season of the series. It’s mind mind-boggling to recap, or even follow, the narrative threads that intersect in the film’s 125 minutes. If there’s a downside to this film, it’s that the writing department hasn’t fully transitioned between mediums. While the pacing of this Downton Abbey film is decidedly cinematic, as opposed to the first work, which moved like TV, A New Era feels as if it’s setting up a season’s worth of subplots. Yet despite the sheer volume of narrative—this review has yet to mention Daisy’s romantic woes, Mrs. Patmore’s romantic woes, Thomas’s fling with Guy Dexter, Lady Mary’s shaky marriage, Cora’s cancer scare, Lord Grantham’s lineage panic, the Mosley/Baxter fling, and Carson’s hat problem, among others—A New Era resolves these problems and more.
A Dame in Her Prime
Perhaps it’s just good practice. Everyone in Downton Abbey knows their roles down pat. This ensemble truly is the best of one assembled in any medium. The relationships between the actors speak to their chemistry, as well as their ability to get under the skin of their characters.
Maggie Smith once again steals the show as Violet, the crotchety Dowager Countess of Grantham. Smith is the boss of the barbed zinger. She is the queen of dry wit and the dame of the deadpan. Any actor who aspires to master the art of diction should take a cue from Smith’s work in the Downtown Abbey tele-cinematic universe.
Downton Abbey: A New Era also benefits greatly from the cinematic grip of director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn). The film weaves briskly between the worlds of the servants and the worlds of the Crawleys, and smartly volleys conversations about the changing winds in well-paced dinner table repartee.
A New Era mostly jives with the contemporary sensibility that the franchise, like the Crawleys, needs to grasp to stay relevant. Some earnest attempts struggle more than others, admittedly. The appearance of a Black jazz band at a party, for example, underscores how the franchise hasn’t successfully diversified its cast beyond tokenism. (Admittedly, a trap of the era/subject matter.) On the other hand, the subplot with Thomas’s sexuality makes some headway despite being boxed-in by the very British art of the indirect address. His flirtations with Dexter embody the hidden lives of some of Hollywood’s finest and the stories people had to tell in public versus in private. With this storyline, A New Era illustrates how change can come to Downton Abbey. Like the silent film production, though, it starts with a whisper.