The Pitch: It may have been a few years since the last one, but never mind that; it’s time for the newest episode of Downton Abbey! Yes, all your favorite characters are back as the clock chimes on the year 1928, and the good folks of this lovely English countryside continue to puzzle over the encroachment of the modern world. First automobiles, then the telephone, and now — moving pictures! What is a stately English manor and its staff and residents to do?!?
The above is this writer’s best efforts to inject some extra drama into a description of Downton Abbey: A New Era, the second theatrically-released installment continuing the saga of the wildly popular ITV/PBS period drama. But also, that’s really not necessary. While this isn’t something unique to Downton, it has always been a franchise where the low stakes is actually the point; while there’s always just enough conflict to keep things interesting, this remains a low-key and low-stress story world to visit, and we’re grateful for it.
Thank God They Don’t Go to Abu Dhabi: Prior to seeing A New Era, one might be struck by thoughts of another TV show that shifted to films after the series’ conclusion. But it’s a pleasure to report that the second Downton Abbey film does not hit the same nadir of quality achieved by Sex and the City 2. That said, both sequel films involve the main characters taking a journey abroad to an exotic locale — in this case, Lord Grantham and other members of the family take a trip to the south of France, to visit a luxurious villa that the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has just inherited.
The trip to France proves to be a halfway decent opportunity for director Simon Curtis to push the color palette and visual style of Downton Abbey a little bit out of its comfort zone, while also sparking the film’s chief mystery: Why, exactly, the Dowager Countess was bequeathed this beautiful property by a marquis she’d only known for a short time prior to Robert’s birth? As with all Downton mysteries, it’s eventually resolved in a firm, polite, and unfussed way.
Robert Keeps Calling It “Kin-ema” and It’s the Cutest Thing: As eluded to above, the other major storyline of A New Era revolves around Downton Abbey itself getting into the movies; when a movie director (Hugh Dancy, just the latest high-profile British actor to join the franchise) asks to shoot his new period drama in the historic house, Lord Grantham is initially appalled. But after Lady Mary points out just how badly they need the location fee to pay for the house’s crumbling roof, he acquiesces to Hollywood coming to Downton.
These sequences are maybe light in terms of plot (Singing in the Rain fans, you’ll figure out where this storyline goes very quickly) but they are also arguably some of the most enjoyable moments of film of the year. Seeing how each member of the ensemble cast reacts to the incursion of Real Hollywood Stars proves quite enjoyable, from starstruck Daisy (Sophie McShera) to the bewildered Isobel (Penelope Wilton), and the people playing said Hollywood Stars are also pretty fun.
Dominic West plays silver screen star Guy Dexter, who unlike other portrayals of actors seems to have a reasonably solid perspective on what he does and how much longer it might last. Meanwhile, Laura Haddock, perhaps best known for playing Peter’s mother Meredith Quill in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, absolutely nails what makes playing a diva like Myrna Dalgleish so delicious to watch.
The meta aspects of this narrative are handled well and creator Julian Fellowes only occasionally lets it slip into pure fan service — really, perhaps the most delightful moment comes in watching someone like Dame Maggie Smith, with literally 70 years of stage and screen experience behind her, pretend to wince at the director’s call for “Action!” One twist, late in the film, comes together due largely to happenstance — but it calls for the entire downstairs staff to step into the spotlight, and the result is pure pleasure.
The Verdict: It could be said that a film like this always strives to operate as basically an entire season of television, though if that’s the case some of the characters get extremely short-changed. For example, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) does get a bit of a character arc in this: Which is to say, at the beginning of the film, she decides that she wants to start working as a journalist again, after a few years spent focusing on home and family, and realizes in the end that yes, she does like working and wants to continue doing it.
Apologies for the spoilers, but there’s not much to spoil in this regard, and many of the other characters are dealt similar short shrift, when not being nudged towards romances with other conveniently single members of the ensemble. The other general flaws of Downton Abbey remain present, including its continued inability to figure out how to actually integrate people of color into the storytelling. (In this film, we get jazz singers. Again. And this time, none of them get to hook up with Lily James!)
However, while not bursting with ambition or any interest in deviating from proven formula, A New Era does exactly what you hope it would do, and give series fans a little more time with beloved characters, even daring to alter the status quo in one or two major ways. Nothing that would turn audiences off to the idea of a third film, of course, and that’s good news. Britain is a country built on tradition, after all, and semi-regular returns to Downton Abbey feel like a tradition worth maintaining.
Where to Watch: Downton Abbey: A New Era thinks it’d be quite proper and pleasant if you were to pay it a visit in theaters beginning Friday, May 20th.