‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ Is Perfectly Respectable (Movie Review)

Focus Features’ Downton Abbey: A New Era is the second full-length feature of PBS’ beloved series of the same name. Creator Julian Fellowes’ 21st century take about a fictional early 20th-century family, the Crawleys (and the people who serve them) has legions of fans. Each episode featured period-appropriate attire and just the right amount of stiff-upper-lip Anglofied mannerisms. All of it is (mostly) set at the lush estate, Downton Abbey. Plenty of the cast has returned: Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Imelda Staunton, and more. Three years after the last film and seven years since the last episode aired, do we still have time for Lady Mary’s attitude, butler Thom’s shenanigans, and Duchess Violet’s wit? Clearly, we’ll always have time for Dame Maggie Smith’s one-liners. Either way, Old Hollywood (well, “new” back then) has arrived at Downton’s doorsteps…

The “Hollywood comes to Downton” angle is a terrific setup for A New Era. Despite Lord Grantham’s (Bonneville) contempt for the moving pictures business, his daughter Mary (Dockery) reminds him that Downton could use the extra cash to fix a leaky attic. Yes, it’s a literal leaky attic situation, and no, Lord Grantham hasn’t been to that section of the estate in years because why would he? If a movie studio is willing to pay handsomely to shoot on the grounds, jolly good, old boy.

Along with the cast of regulars from the series, new characters like the film’s director Jack (Hugh Dancy) and two stars are front and center. Dominic West is dashing leading man Guy Dexter whose striking good looks accompany a voice ready for the talkies. On the other hand, his co-star, the stunning Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), is not. Her shrill cockney accent is a nod to Hepburn’s Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady and Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in Singin’ In The Rain.

I just recently watched the stunning 4K 70th-anniversary restoration of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s classic musical. Good timing, as whole plot points are lifted from that film into A New Era, which was a delightful surprise (If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best). Better still, the film production narrative offers some nice turns for beloved characters. Naturally, the ever-scrappy Daisy (Sophie McShera) is a fan of the picture shows. As it turns out, sad face Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is a goto not just got butlering but onset screenwriting. These are wonderful ways to highlight new aspects of characters fans have known for over a decade.

When the film is focused on turning a silent film into a talkie with the help of the Crawleys and staff, it’s at its best. Overall, this is a decidedly lighter affair for a Downton tale, i.e., there’s no Sybil as undead zombie moments (Look it up, it’s a thing). And that’s perfectly fine.

Sadly, there’s another subplot off the Downton grounds that doesn’t fare quite as well. The Duchess has left the deed to a villa in France, and the circumstances could be scandalous. While Mary flirts with a director at home, her parents and a few others like Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) are trying to piece together the mystery. This “mystery” is not at all compelling. Nor are the French son and mother that host the villa excursion. I suppose the location is pretty, but most of the time, I was eager to get back to Downton to witness the help play dress up as extras. Seeing Ms. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) out of her cooking uniform, acting like an aristocrat, along with the rest of the downstairs crew, is an inspired moment.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is the kind of light as a feather getaway any lover of the television show will admire. If you somehow never saw the series, though? It’s perfectly fine. As a fan, I was primarily along for this horseless carriage ride as the chance to spend at least one more outing with the Crawleys. Fellowes and his cast know these characters thoroughly. Is it a bit of a victory lap? Sure. Did we need to see this story? Not at all. Yet I can’t imagine those that can’t get enough of the series won’t be more than pleased just spending more time at Downton Abbey.


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