I admittedly wavered about writing this review of “Downton Abbey: A New Era” at all. Why bother, when those who are fans of the show will watch it and more than likely enjoy it, and those who aren’t will avoid it altogether no matter what? But there’s something to be said for not just the massive success of the long-running British period drama, but the 2019 feature film it spawned, which was enough of a hit for creator Julian Fellowes to almost immediately begin penning a sequel. And I am a fan of the show; less a long-time one and more one who frantically binged every season before the series concluded in 2015, but a fan all the same, and I can attest to the success of the film’s main asset: the feelings of comfort and joy brought about by watching characters you’ve grown to love after witnessing large chunks of their lives unfold.
“A New Era,” which is written and produced by Fellowes and directed by Simon Curtis, is set a little while after the events of the previous film, and wastes no time throwing a lot of conflicts at the inhabitants of Downton, the Crawley family and their servants. The film opens on the wedding of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), who formed a romance during the preparations for the royal visit. The Crawleys learn that the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley (the perpetually scene-stealing Maggie Smith), has inherited a lavish villa in the south of France from a man she once spent a few days with there very long ago, and decides to leave it to Sybbie, Tom’s daughter with the late Lady Sybil Crawley, who otherwise stood to inherit very little. The son of the marquis who left the property to Violet invites the family to visit so he can meet them, so half of the Crawleys venture to the Riviera, while Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) remains behind to oversee a film crew who is shooting a movie at Downton, the profits from which the family could sorely use to make some repairs and keep up the house.
When I reviewed the first “Downton Abbey” movie upon its release in 2019, I wrote about how the film set up themes of modernity encroaching on the Crawley’s estate and their traditional values, and how the movie ultimately seemed to make a case for upholding the old in the midst of the new. “A New Era,” even in its very title, treads on that same ground again, as the 1930s are rapidly approaching and the Crawleys find themselves once more trying to retain their traditions while adjusting to an increasingly modern world. While the previous film revolved around a visit from perhaps the ultimate pillar of English tradition, the Queen herself, the sequel’s visitors represent everything the Crawleys— or at least, the Dowager Countess and her son, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville)— want to keep away. But even the film crew, led by dashing director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), find their profession rapidly becoming obsolete. In the middle of filming his silent picture, “The Gambler,” Barber receives a phone call to halt production because in the wake of “The Jazz Singer,” audiences want talking pictures. In a “Singin’ in the Rain”-esque turn of events, Mary steps in to help Barber and his cast and crew add sound to the film; and while leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) appears to have little trouble adapting, glamourous actress Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), with her rough regional accent, struggles to make the transition, as many silent film stars did in reality.
But the invasion of film people is the only real tangible evidence here of the changing world that seems like it is always perpetually looming on the horizon, but never moving significantly nearer to the Crawleys, whose way of life since their story opened in 1912 otherwise seems to be changing very little. Like the first movie, “A New Era” often feels like it could have just been a two hour special on PBS, but it does swing for some big moments and more cinematic flourishes. There are all those sweeping glamour shots of Downton (in real life a home in the town of Newbury called Highclere Castle), some of which give Michael Bay’s drone shots in last month’s “Ambulance” a run for their money, and the story does get away from Downton’s immediate surroundings for a bit with a rare outing to another country, even if the scenes at the villa by the sea still feel quite confined. Once again, I’m staggered by the Fellowes’ ability to cram so many plotlines, big and small, into a two hour timeframe, allowing each character a moment to shine, while never feeling as rushed or stuffed as it ought to (even though some of the events of this film could have been stretched into an entire season of the show). Some bits, like a health scare for a major character, feel a little manipulative, while other pieces aren’t fully resolved, namely, Mary’s relationship with her husband Henry, played in the series by Matthew Goode. Goode’s absence from the movie is explained away as Henry being out of the country racing cars, but Mary’s apparent dissatisfaction with the trajectory of their marriage is left up in the air. But virtually all the rest of the cast return for this sequel, still appearing to have a good time inhabiting characters they have become so synonymous with over the years, and for fans, it’s natural to delight in their joys and partake in their sadness right along with them. Dockery’s Mary especially shines here, as she begins to more wholeheartedly step into the role as mistress of Downton. Fellowes’ screenplay, meanwhile, is gently funny and heartfelt, using the film’s movie-making subplot to poke a little fun at the business. The series and later the first movie ended in such a way to make continuing to drag out the Crawleys’ story seem unnecessary, and yet, Fellowes keeps making a case for doing so with these frothy, borderline ridiculous romps that also allow many of the characters to grow and change. The plot itself takes some twists and turns along the way, even it if after all that it ends up it a fairly predictable place. That is, after all, part of the appeal of these stories; they are comfort food, and the familiar embrace of these stories, places, and characters is what keeps fans coming back for more. That’s likely why “Downton,” regardless of how many more stories we may or may not get in the future, will continue taking baby steps instead of marching along with time. “A New Era” may not actually usher in a new era, but I’m more than content to go along for the ride.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 125 minutes. Rated PG.