Review – Downton Abbey: A New Era

Downton Abbey: A New Era


It’s time to play the music…

The Crawley family are stunned when Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) is bequeathed a villa on the French Riviera by a man she spent a week with decades previously. As half of the family and servants depart to inspect the new property, the remainder are left with a more modern problem: a film production on the grounds of the house, which brings together stressed directors, diva actors and Mary (Michelle Dockery), continuing to find her place in an increasingly changing world.

The girlfriend and I binged our way through Downton Abbey, and the first film, during lockdown. It’s a bit of a strange show, whose enormous cast (I’m not writing all the names down in the above synopsis, that could be a post in itself) leads you through this strange mix of period piece and ridiculous melodrama, where a laughable “scandal” might be around the same corner as a murder. But it’s undoubtedly an affecting piece of media, one where creator Julian Fellowes has found a potent formula of a diverse mix of fun characters that you like following around just to see if they will have a happy ending, in the end. The 2019 movie was, I posit anyway, meant to be that happy ending, but like the best kind of soap operas, it just never ends.

Hence A New Era, where a little bit more is found to be wrung out of the Downton Abbey sponge. And in this case it’s a case of having your cake and eating it too. We get the Downton equivalent of “IN SPAAAACE!” as half of the cast head off to the sunny side of France for a very strangely put together plot involving disputed inheritances, paternity questions and comedy interludes where characters have to buy a hat, while the other half are in a movie about making a movie (based heavily on Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, right down to the starlet who has to be re-dubbed when it changes from silent to a talkie). Given the film’s surprising length, I think it’s actually a good thing that we get this sense of variety, even if at times there is a bit of stilted feel as we cut from plot to plot.

And that’s just the basic outline. A New Era is at pains to give just about everyone something to do, and I will attempt a brief rundown here: the family of Violet’s old French flame are considering contesting the will that handed her the Riviera mansion; Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has a sudden crisis regarding his exact parentage; Edith (Laura Carmichael) is getting back into journalism; Carson (Jim Carter) is coaxed out of retirement so he can show the French what’s what, to the consternation of Elsie (Phylis Hogan); Mr Molesley (Keven Doyle) wants to get involved in the film business and is still carrying a torch for Phyllis (Raquel Cassidy); newly-weds Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Andy (Michael Fox) chaff having to live with Albert (Paul Coopley) so scheme to fix him up with Ms Patmore (Lesley Nicol); Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Frogget) have a new child; Lady Mary is missing her absent husband and getting a bit too close to film director Jack (Hugh Dancy); Barrow (Robert James-Collier) has an unexpected romance with film star Guy Dexter (Dominic West); starlet Myrna (Laura Haddock) annoys everyone with her arrogant ways; Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) gets some bad medical news; Branson (Allen Leech) and new wife Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) get used to being the kind of people who inherit large properties; and a good few more characters are hanging around as well. The effect is to make A New Era seem positively stuffed to the gills, though oddly there’s enough time and space to let everything play out. Just about anyway. Any fan of the show will find something probably multiple things to enjoy.

At the heart of it all of course is the magnificent Maggie Smith, a woman who long ago took the Dowager Countess role and made it iconic. A New Era is, to a surprising degree in some sense, very much Violet’s film. Having ended the last one with an admission that she isn’t long for this world, A New Era delves into her past even as she prepares for the end, but if that sounds needlessly dramatic you can rest-assured that the real highlights of the production are Violet’s continually biting wit whether she is remarking that she would “rather earn a living down the mines” than work in the movie business or insisting that she “can’t hear myself dying” when her maid gets mopey during a spell of bead health. It’s all in the delivery, and if nothing else Maggie Smith should be complimented for making a remarkable connection between this almost cartoonish character and the audience, and maybe allowing a certain disdain for the role and the production – she hasn’t been shy about questioning why the film’s exist – actually inform how she plays the part. Not that any of the truly enormous cast are doing bad work – West, Carter, Haddock and Doyle are stand-outs especially – but they all fall away from Smith.

It’s good fun though. Carson rails against the idea of a film being made in Downton: “This smacks of the worst excesses of the French Revolution!” Later, despite looking like he is a moment from a heatstroke-induced collapse, he tells a Frenchman that “we English are never too hot to wear the correct attire”. In Downton, Mr Molesley reduces people to near-tears with his ideas for a different ending to the film, but not until Myrtle’s “Kippers for breakfast mum?”-style accent makes the idea of it being a talkie a little hard to buy. Of course one has to suspend their disbelief at this fantastical depiction of noblise oblige privilege mixed with endlessly happy servants, but if you can put the Engels down for two hours you will find a few reasons to smile.

Director Simon Curtis manages to use the cinematography to good effect, with A New Era rebounding with the sort of soaring establishing shots that wowed you from the first one, and a decent effort made at recreating the reality of filmmaking in the 1920s, as “talkies” came along to replace silent pictures. Other than that it’s essentially the same kind of high-value soap opera framing that we had throughout the show’s run, just of an even higher quality. There are some very strange editing choices at times with multiple scenes where characters are seemingly just standing around in a nice location summing up the plot as it has progressed to that point before an awkward cut to the next scene, and one suspects that some form of television break-up is being kept in the back of the minds of the production crew. You get past it though. The production details, from the clothes, to the props to those beautiful cars that everyone seems to be driving around suddenly are all sublime of course, evidence of a media property that has long since gotten used to immersing the cast and the viewer in the period depicted.

This is not a franchise that I would be grudge continuing episodes from, because it’s set-up to be the sort of thing that just keeps going forever. At some point we’ll get something set in World War 2, and I’m convinced they’ll have some kind of spin-off set in the modern-day at some point. That’s just what Downton Abbey is, and it’s one of the reasons that it is addictive. Attractive characters, period melodrama, a competent director and happy endings all round. What isn’t there to like really? This is a franchise instalment that is just all too easy to relax in front of, and it is hard to give anything other than a very firm recommendation.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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