Downton Abbey: A New Era
Directed by Simon Curtis
Written by Julian Fellowes
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery and Dominic West
Classification PG; 125 minutes
Opens May 20 in theatres
Other than the title, Downton Abbey: A New Era turns out to be not very new. We return to the upstairs/downstairs of the Crawley family and their servants, this time with too little of acid-tongued Violet, dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith, now 87), the matriarch and figurehead whose venomous darts energized the television-series-turned-movie brand.
It picks up several months after the 1927 Royal visit of Downton Abbey: The Movie. That film was a saga of would-be assassins and seating arrangements on top of the usual class dynamics; here, the ensemble must contend with questions of inheritance and lineage, disruptive technology and the hierarchies of celebrity.
A New Era opens in the summer of 1928, and the action (such as it is) is spurred by the twin demands of glamour and routine maintenance: Violet has been bequeathed a sumptuous villa in the south of France by a marquis she knew in her youth, and the abbey needs a new roof.
Off most of the Crawleys go – just a few essential personal servants and retired butler Carson (Jim Carter) in tow – to check out the digs. Frail Violet, who at the end of the last movie revealed a grave but unspecified illness, stays behind and takes dinner in her room. Smith’s every quip is a miracle of passive-aggressive line reading, but they are infrequent.
When the estate is scouted as a shooting location by British Lion (a studio cutely styled with MGM’s emblematic mascot) the old guard are apoplectic (“I’d rather make my living down a mine”). But needs must prevail: the fee is large enough to fix the leaks, so faster than you can say Pygmalion Meets Gosford Park, a film crew descends on Downton. Starring in the period picture being shot, there is dashing matinee idol Guy Dexter (Dominic West), playing the ne’er-do-well gambler and onscreen love interest of Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), a spoiled diva straight of out Singin’ in the Rain.
When the silent picture becomes a talkie and the diva proves impervious to elocution lessons, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her cut-glass accent come to the rescue of beleaguered director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), natch. In one of A New Era’s four pairings and a funeral, Mary not only has a subplot that mirrors her grandmother’s romantic history but she gets an assist from guileless Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who knows how to type and turns out to have a flair for scripted melodrama: his modest job as a village school teacher has until now precluded him from courting ladies maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy).
There are 26 principals (not counting the children and guest stars). The large ensemble cast was great fodder for episodic television, but giving each beloved original character a contribution more meaningful than expository dialogue is unwieldy. Add to that the disjointed back-and-forth of parallel storylines, which criss-cross the ocean and the movie-within-the-movie conceit, and two hours feels like a chaotic novelty vacation episode spliced into a splashy season finale.
Yet amid the various hi-jinx, there’s an air of finality and overall resignation, especially in Violet’s tender scenes with frequent sparring partner Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton). There’s also the resolution of several loose ends, like the series’ only queer character Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finally getting a chance at happiness.
The film’s sentimental plot may be thinner than a sheet of tissue paper, but it was still moving to this stalwart viewer. It is subdued and at the core, cast interactions feel palpably elegiac, as though imbued with the real-world zeitgeist of the past couple of years (the exhortation to kindness, especially). Or maybe everyone just knows this movie could be their last hurrah? Still, the very real prospect of change and death looms with references to wills, heart attacks and older characters frequently needing rest.
It also feels like it’s not enough to have watched the six original seasons any more (make that: 47 episodes, five Christmas specials and now two feature film spinoffs). There are tidbits sprinkled in to perhaps explore in potential prequels, sequels and spinoffs – to say nothing of marketing tie-ins, like an immersive Amazon Alexa experience, wherein fan-favourite Carson’s distinctive baritone guides listeners through family trivia and an audio tour. Or Downton Abbey: The Premium Gin. (Official LEGO isn’t far behind.)
“I loved you from the start,” Cora assures her husband in a scene that hints at their origin story. Writer Julian Fellowes has never been much for subtlety. So I now expect to see young Cora and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) as a crossover storyline about the nouveau riche American “dollar princesses” married off to cash-strapped English aristocrats incorporated into an upcoming season of Fellowes’ de facto Downton prequel, HBO’s The Gilded Age. It suggests a franchise, since the feudal system is perfect fodder for a swirling monied metaverse (just ask The Crown).
A New Era’s story stops just short of the October, 1929, stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. That’s when things will surely (hopefully?) get more interesting for this privileged clan if another movie is in the works. But if not, A New Era has done its duty as the more accurately titled Downton Abbey: End of an Era.
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