Rejoice, Downtonians! Downton Abbey: A New Era is a worthy entry into Julian Fellowes’ beloved franchise. You were right to worry, of course. The first foray of the acclaimed television drama onto the big screen, 2019 Downton Abbey, looked like a glorified holiday special; it is not surprising that Parasitethe very superior takes the same Up down premise, completely eclipsed in terms of cultural significance. And the fact that Focus Features postponed twice A new era, from December 2021 to March and then to May, was not really reassuring. But the sequel manages to rekindle that old feeling from the first footage, to the same John Lunn score that reliably sent chills to Viewers Like You many a Sunday, just like Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning.” did to the fans of The Sopranos-only this time Downtown does it without Laura Linney’s intro.
Violet (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess, comes into possession of a villa in the south of France left by her former flame, the Marquis de Montmirail, whose widow (Nathalie Baye) swears to contest his will in court. Unexpectedly, the Montmirails invite the Crawleys to visit. For some reason, the usually pasty Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Earl of Grantham, looks neat and tanned before he even sets foot in France. While most of the Crawleys leave to uncover grim details about the Dowager’s past affair, the Dowager herself and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) remain behind.
While the previous film is nothing more than a superfluous comedy of manners prompted by a royal visit to the estate, the sequel finds Fellowes revisiting some of his series’ most enduring tropes. With the respective arrivals of electricity, telephone, toaster, refrigerator, blender, radio, etc., the Downton team has always greeted new technologies with apprehension. The schtick of them struggling to fit in with the modern conveniences we take for granted never gets old, and Fellowes is up to their old tricks again with a silent movie-era cast and crew trying to make a sound image at Downton.
You see, there are leaks in the attic. To fund the expensive upkeep of the house, the Crawleys reluctantly accept an offer from filmmaker Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) to rent parts of Downton for photography from a “cinematographer” named The player, with Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). Before the cast and crew even have a chance to exhaust their welcome, British Lion suspends production as walkie-talkies are in demand. Mary, more enterprising than ever, encourages Jack to turn the doomed project into a sound picture, which taps into many hidden talents at Downton. Myrna happens to have a desperate Cockney accent that isn’t suitable for walkie-talkies, so Jack asks Mary to double her lines. This sends Myrna into a diva crisis which the maids, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Daisy (Sophie McShera), try to sort out. Former valet-butler-valet Molesley (Kevin Doyle), apparently a lover of the dramatic arts, steps in under the wire to formulate dialogue from scratch.
It’s all getting a bit meta, which is really, really fun. Viewers can remember a PBS look behind the scenes at Highclere Castle, the real Downton, and how the show enabled expensive renovations to the property. Plus, it’s cute for Downton staff downstairs to be giddy and giddy at the prospect of being extras in a movie within a movie, when those series regulars are, at least for Downtonians, much bigger stars than West and Haddock, with all due respect.
Like many series, Downtown is most emotionally resonant when beloved characters – memorably Dan Stevens’ Cousin Matthew and Jessica Brown Findlay’s Lady Sybil – suddenly depart. Over the years, the show has variously teased Lady Mary and Anna’s possibilities of heading to America (which no doubt inspired Golden age), Daisy quits to become a secretary, butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds love, the Dowager Countess leaving permanently, etc., but did not act on these ideas. Finally, 12 years after the first episode of the series aired, there are a handful of high-profile departures in A new era sure to hit Downtonians in the thrills.
Unlike Michael Engler, who directed the first Downtown feature film director Simon Curtis never worked on the series (although he was tangentially connected to the franchise through his wife, Elizabeth McGovern, Cora the Countess of Grantham herself). However, the look and feel of A new era evoke its origins on the small screen. There are periodic shots showing the exterior of Downton in all its glory – an editorial choice that only makes sense for TV. But Downtonians will probably feel all too happy to see this cast of characters again, and here Fellowes reminds us how we got so invested in their lives in the first place.