‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ – A Sentimental Tug on Your Heartstrings (Review)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: Julian Fellowes is a big fan of playing on our nostalgia, and it’s certainly true with his new film Downton Abbey: A New Era. The second movie in the Downton series is a trip down memory lane marked with many familiar faces, a few welcome new ones – and a reminder that, though the times are changing, Downton Abbey is still standing. I can almost guarantee that dedicated fans of the series will find themselves laughing and crying throughout as we follow the Crawleys on this new journey.

Picking up where the first film left off, we’re headed into the 1930s, and the Crawleys find themselves with some exciting opportunities. The first is that director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) wants to use Downton as the filming location for his new movie. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) accepts, knowing how much the house could use the money they’re willing to pay. The second is that the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) recently inherited a property in the south of France. Hence, while Mary takes charge of the film shoot, a group of the others led by Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) travel to France to visit this villa left by a mysterious benefactor.

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Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Pelham, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Tuppence Middleton as Lucy Smith & Allen Leech as Tom Branson in Downton Abbey: A New Era (COURTESY: Focus Features)

Perhaps it’s my interest in stories about the entertainment industry, but I found myself most invested in Mary’s plot and Downton itself dealing with the infiltration of a film crew. It makes fodder for quite a few comedic moments, as the staff and family learn to share their space with a boisterous and exciting group of visitors – including glamorous Hollywood stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). Fans of Singin’ in the Rain might also enjoy this plot, as there’s an exploration of films transitioning from silent to talking pictures and that transition’s effect on silent movie actors who made their name with their faces, but not their voices.

The film crew invading Downton also makes for exciting moments for Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), whose story has erred on the side of misfortune throughout the series. With Downton Abbey: A New Era, his luck takes a welcome turn, and it’s lovely to be able to laugh with him rather than at him. Another member of the downstairs staff who gets a shining moment in this film is the under-cook Daisy (Sophie McShera). We’ve seen her grow from the timid scullery maid afraid to touch a light switch at the beginning of the series to New Era‘s thoughtful, outspoken woman, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the scenes with her, Myrna, and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) together.

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Penelope Wilton as Isobel Merton, and Maggie Smith as Violet Grantham in Downton Abbey: A New Era (COURTESY: Focus Features)

Of course, since this is Downton Abbey, it’s Lady Mary’s world, and we’re all just living in it – a truth still universally acknowledged by Downton Abbey: A New Era. However, this means something different now. When we met Mary, a cold and callous woman, upset at being passed over simply because she is not a man, and unafraid to show her anger. Over the show’s six seasons and the first film, we watched Mary have children and find a lot of room to grow. This is still her world because she is in charge of the estate until her son George is old enough to run it himself. That world, though, is no longer just about her; it’s about the good of Downton. As always, Dockery does a great job portraying Mary as a woman who can still be arrogant and blunt, but who has taken on a new responsibility and understands its importance to those around her.

It can certainly be tricky to split up your characters in an ensemble piece such as this one. Still, Downton Abbey: A New Era‘s story remained primarily cohesive, in sharp contrast with the first film’s excessive subplots. A New Era continues the romance between Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), the illegitimate daughter Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), an estranged cousin of the Crawleys. Of course, I want Branson to be happy after Sybil’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) tragic death, especially when none of his romances during the series turned out fruitful. However, a movie with so many characters, has little time to explore Tom and Lucy’s romance, and it remains flat and underdeveloped. This feels like the biggest drawback of turning Downton into a movie when it was at its best in episodic format. Though it’s exciting to spend more time with these characters, there’s not enough time to explore everything that Fellowes seemed to want in a two-hour film.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is the perfect send-off for everyone. As nostalgic as I get for the world of Downton, I think I’d be disappointed if there is more in the future (something Fellowes and Downton co-creator Gareth Neame have now all but confirmed). The film wraps this world up so neatly, with happy endings for each character upstairs and down, that I can’t imagine what more could come next. I’m happy to rewatch the many hours of the Crawleys I already have rather than repeat a new looming event or threat coming to disrupt life at Downton as we know it. In a world of reboots, revivals, and sequels, it’s most important to know when enough is enough.

Rating: 7.5/10

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