Photo: Ben Blackall/Focus Features
The full name of the new Downton Abbey movie, the second to be released in theaters since the popular television series ended its run on PBS in 2016, is Downton Abbey: A New Era. But while the latest entry in the Downton Cinematic Universe does suggest time is marching on — among other developments, a film crew comes to the estate to shoot a movie, complete with newfangled cameras in tow — there isn’t anything particularly “new” about this iteration of Julian Fellowes’s ongoing saga about the Crawley clan and their staff. Like its predecessor, Downton Abbey: The Movie, this is essentially a supersized, extra-long episode of Downton Abbey with all the elements fans have come to expect from the long-running story of a privileged family committed to maintaining (most of) the traditions of aristocratic English society.
It should surprise no one to learn that Downton Abbey: A New Era includes a joyous wedding, an equally joyous marriage proposal, and more than one health scare; news of an unexpected inheritance (the gold standard of Downton Abbey story lines) and the uncovering of a family secret (another Downton fave); opportunities for former butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) to demonstrate his horror at contemporary life (“A moving picture? At Downton?”); and even more chances for the Crawley matriarch, Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), to deliver sick, extremely British burns. “How musical you make that sound,” Violet says when actress Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), star of the production shooting at Downton, speaks in a less than posh Cockney accent. As always, Smith’s delivery is as dry and prickly as a cactus.
In short, a more appropriate title for this movie would have been Downton Abbey 2: Downton’s Gonna Downton because that more or less describes what this film does: continue providing the sort of comfortable entertainment audiences expect of a franchise — I guess it’s a franchise now? — that centers largely around Brits who live very comfortably.
The so-called new era begins in 1928, a few months after the events of the previous film, as the Crawleys receive word that Violet has inherited a villa in the south of France from the Marquis de Montmirail, a man who recently passed away and with whom the Dowager Countess shared a close relationship decades earlier. Violet says she has no idea why the marquis left her the property rather than deeding it to his widow, the Madame de Montmirail (Nathalie Baye), but she does not feel particularly guilty about claiming it either. “Do I look as if I’d turn down a villa in the south of France?” Violet asks. Reader, she does not.
Violet does intend to pass it on to someone else, though: her granddaughter Sybbie, daughter of the late Sybil Crawley — this is not a spoiler, she died in season three — and the former chauffeur and Irish revolutionary Tom Branson (Allen Leech). But before the business can get squared away, the new marquis (Jonathan Zaccaï), the son of Violet’s deceased and mysterious special friend, insists on inviting several members of the family to visit the villa for a few days.
Tom and his new wife, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), Lord Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, noticeably tanner even before he goes to France), Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), their daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), Edith’s husband, Bertie (Harry Haden-Patton), and Carson, who is technically retired but always temporarily comes out of retirement just in time for a new Downton Abbey movie, all make the trip, which gives A New Era an excuse to show off a lovely coastal French backdrop while peeling back the layers of the relationship between Violet and the late marquis.
Back at home, faced once again with the ever-present financial burdens of running an estate (even the Crawleys have roofs that leak), Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) decides to permit the film crew, overseen by handsome director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), to set up shop at Downton, bringing the aforementioned Myrna and her equally glam co-star, Guy Dexter (Dominic West), into the orbit of the starstruck employees. If you’re wondering whether Jack will take an interest in Mary, whose husband, Henry, is conspicuously absent from this entire endeavor (the reason: Matthew Goode, the actor who plays Henry, had scheduling conflicts), I’ll let you keep wondering. But you probably already know the answer.
The whole movie-making story line is the most fun part of A New Era and gives Fellowes, who wrote the script, and director Simon Curtis an opportunity to do what Downton Abbey has always done best: explore class distinctions and how those boundaries are constantly changing. Initially, some of the Crawleys are concerned about hosting a movie shoot because they perceive actors as crass and of a lower station. “I’d rather earn my living down a mine,” Violet offers. The fact that Myrna, like the housemaids who try to assist her even when she’s being a diva, doesn’t come from money underscores that point.
But the mere presence at Downton of these makers of cinema, who have to switch gears and turn their silent film into a talkie, serves as a reminder that the most revered people in society may no longer be those who hold titles like lord or lady. Some of the most delightfully comedic and slightly meta moments in the movie come from this clash of societal forces; on more than one occasion, a Downton resident or worker unwittingly walks right into a shot while the cameras are rolling, a testament to how accustomed they are to living in an unexamined bubble.
Not surprisingly, some of the issues that afflicted Downton Abbey the series remain issues in Downton Abbey: A New Era. Even though this movie could not exactly be described as action packed, its scenes still unfold with a quickness that can induce breathlessness. Fellowes and Curtis ensure that we never spend too much time observing a single conversation or series of events, which can make even the more momentous, reflective moments — and there are some big ones in the third act — feel a bit rushed. Subtlety is often thrown by the wayside thanks to occasionally clunky dialogue that smacks the audience across the face with subtext. “The modern world comes to Downton,” Cora says as the film’s production crew arrives with all its equipment. Yes, Cora. We can … see that.
A lot of the edges in Downton Abbey have been sanded down over the years; while some of the characters used to engage in vindictive, bad behavior, nearly everyone comes across as nice. While I technically wish the best for butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), I genuinely miss the days when he acted like an unrepentant prick.
One may rightfully ask whether the world needs another Downton Abbey movie, to which I would respond in my best Violet Crawley “What is a weekend?” voice: “What is need?” Certainly it is not needed, but based on the box-office performance of the first film and this second one in the U.K. — it opened at No. 1 there a couple of weeks ago — it would seem the world still wants more. Which raises the question of whether a third movie may soon come. Certain events, which I will not spoil, suggest this could mark the final chapter in the Crawley chronicles. But given how game the actors and Fellowes seem to keep this engine running, Downton Abbey: A New Era could easily be the precursor to an actual new era rather than the period at the end of a previous one.
Personally, I would not be surprised at all if it turns out there are actually three certainties in life instead of just two: death (and the random inheritances that come with it), taxes, and more Downton Abbey.