With the exception of Lady Mary’s conspicuously absent husband, everyone and everything arrives on time in Downton Abbey: A New Era. A silent film director with an eye for stately grandeur arrives with his cast and crew, to the delight of starry servants and anyone who enjoys a self-satisfied film-within-a-film banter. A perfectly timed intrigue beckons from the south of France, sending some of the Crawleys out into the sun for a few days (which almost explains why some of them appear to be sporting ill-applied spray tans). Meanwhile, as those who’ve seen the last film know, the grim specter of death has come to Downton too, and it too is perfectly timed to elicit a few wails and sniffles between stiff-lipped one-liners.
Yes, even the ending comes with giggles and reassurances in Downton Abbey, a place so crammed with cushions and tapestries that soft landings are all but guaranteed. That was more or less the point of the series, originally created by Julian Fellowes, which began in a chaotic moment in 1912 when it seemed that the Crawleys’ glittering world of aristocratic pleasures and privileges might soon be in jeopardy. Yet, episode after episode, said world managed to assert itself against almost every threat directed against it, whether it came from without (WWI!) or from within (scheming servants, first-wave feminist movements). Whether you saw this as a loving affirmation of family or a testament to a hopelessly neoclassical worldview, the series flowed smoothly, lubricated by the whimsical jokes of Violet the Countess widow (the great Maggie Smith), and fueled by Fellowes’ skill and his sympathies, at least superficially, between top and bottom.
Fellowes did an excellent job of this in his Oscar-winning screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, although that film had the benefit of a sharper angle and a director skilled enough to strike the perfect balance of humanism and cynicism. Alongside Gosford Park and the Downton Abbey series, the two Downton films feel both graceful and redundant, in part because – seemingly out of necessity, but more out of laziness – they’re centered around some very special surprise guests are structured which conveniently mess up the whole household. In the 2019 film, the occasion was a royal visit; The misleadingly titled Downton Abbey: A New Era is a film production directed by a producer/director (Hugh Dancy) who wants to shoot on location in Downton. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the increasingly irrelevant squire, is horrified at the suggestion: Imagine allowing such a vulgar race of humanity actor (wink-wink) to soil her palace nicely.
Everyone else gratefully shuts him out, including his steely eldest daughter, Lady Mary (the ever-appealing Michelle Dockery), who notes that the princely sum they’re getting from the shoot could ease some much-needed attic repairs. Just as we’re being asked to shake our heads in sympathy at the colossal expense and struggle of keeping a home like Downton in working order, the Crawleys come into the unexpected, totally unnecessary possession of yet another expansive property. That would be the aforementioned French villa, mysteriously bequeathed by a late Monsieur de Montmirail to the Countess Dowager, who will provide the film’s tension-free central mystery.
And so Robert and his wife, Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), whose reassuring smile seems a little tighter than usual, head to the Riviera accompanied by their daughter, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). and tended to by Carson (Jim Carter), the fiercely traditionalist butler whose two favorite words are surely tut and tut. There, struggling not to wither in the Gallic heat, the Crawleys lay claim to their prize, seeking answers from the soon-ejected Madame de Montmirail (French legend Nathalie Baye, who looks appropriately chilly) and her conflicted, hospitable son ( Jonathan Zaccaï).
Perhaps a third film in the Downton Abbey franchise, if it ever happens, could enjoy the delicious spectacle of the Crawleys being unceremoniously knocked out of their own prized country stack. (Or maybe it could be a slasher movie; I’d pay to see Downton Stabby.) This one, written by Fellowes and directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”) , has the same professional efficiency, affords its share of temporary pleasures. And not just in the usual luxury porn flavor, although those who watch Downton Abbey for the pearls, gowns and vests, lavish furnishings and elegant dinners are unlikely to be disappointed.
The most entertaining subplots come from filming, particularly the two leads, dashing Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and grumpy Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), both of whom harbor secrets behind their glamorous veneers. Both are also concerned about the prospect of their own obsolescence as the silent era gives way to talkies, and at that point the film basically morphs into a goofy extended riff on “Singin’ in the Rain,” to which Lady Mary adds the euphonious Kathy Selden plays Myrna’s scowling Lina Lamont. (If you didn’t know the art of dialogue loops was discovered at Downton Abbey, now you do.) Inevitably, the shoot becomes an opportunity for Downton’s servants to shine, whether it’s embracing the lovable Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle). his inner cinema fan; maids Daisy Parker (Sophie McShera) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), who team up to iron out a kink in production; or lonely gay butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who gets an unexpected second chance at love.
A better, bolder film might have explored this romantic possibility instead of just teasing it; it would also have allowed Barrow, one of the show’s most happily complex characters, to do more than just dally and mope. But then the show, regardless of its shortcomings, had the time and inclination to explore the inner workings of its downstairs characters; Struggling to squeeze a massive ensemble cast into a two-hour story, the film makes the Aid more dramatic than ever. In the most unmusical sequence, several of the servants (including Lesley Nicol’s scene-stealing Mrs Patmore) are invited to serve as extras in a film scene, put on some evening cleaning, and finally sit down at the table where they’ve spent years in devoted, thankless service . How blessed they are to play aristocrats for an evening! Watch them beam at their happiness. On second thought, don’t.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era”
Valuation: PG, for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements
Duration: 2 hours, 5 minutes
To play: Launches in general release on May 20th