Downton Abbey: A New Era will hit theaters on May 20, 2022.
There’s a charming simplicity to Downton Abbey: A New Era, the sequel to the movie spin-off to the 2010 series. For about an hour and 20 minutes, it functions as a wistful return to familiar sights, sounds, and people, moving between scenes with a sense of lightness and musicality, and providing non-stop laughs until its story wraps up with a neat and comforting bow. It then inexplicably continues for another 40 minutes past that point, pivoting unpredictably into some of the most jaw-dropping tonal whiplash the saga has ever seen. All in all, it’s a Downton Abbey movie; could its seemingly final chapter have gone any other way?
The existence of these cinematic outings rests on ignoring the end of the show, which hints at oncoming changes to early 20th century English society and the dissolution of Downton’s aristocratic structure – essentially, the end of its upstairs-downstairs premise. However, it simply would not be Downton Abbey if that status quo were upset, no matter how much characters like Daisy (Sophie McShera) aspire to be more than kitchen maids to stuck-up earls and countesses (12 years later – 18 in continuity – and she’s still making lateral moves). The previous film, simply titled Downton Abbey, not only has the Queen and her family visiting the lush estate, but sees the house staff eager to serve them, and it even ends with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) – the once staunch Irish socialist, who eventually married into the Crawley family after years of being mistreated as their chauffeur – saving the Queen’s life, thus ensuring the continuation of the Royal lineage. That’s as English as it gets, a baton which A New Era carries with enthusiasm.
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Like its title, the film hints at nominal transformation on the horizon, but in true Downton fashion, it wouldn’t allow any meaningful change. The Abbey functions as it always did, leasing the surrounding farmland to poor workers and hosting a full schedule of meaningless black-tie events attended by the Crawleys alone. But when its sweeping establishing shots arrive, and the first notes of John Lunn’s glorious musical theme fade in, you can’t help but be hit by waves of nostalgia (it’s the same reason the Fantastic Beasts films still find ways to have scenes set at Hogwarts). After a cheery opening at a wedding, replete with ceremony photographs that re-introduce the entire cast, the plot quickly kicks into motion with two unrelated events that soon separate the characters into two distinct parties.
The now nearly-century-old Lady Violet Crawley (played by the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith, witty as ever) comes into possession of a summer villa in the South of France after the death of a mysterious man from her past. In order to sort out the inheritance, she sends her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), her granddaughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), Edith’s husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), and Branson, along with his new wife Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) and his mother-in-law Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), to meet with the grieving family. The group is accompanied by the soft-spoken lady’s maid Mrs. Mr. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), the hilariously reluctant and once again out-of-retirement butler Carson (Jim Carter), and the ever-charming footman Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) who, sadly, has very little screen time despite being a major presence on the show. This half of the story is funny and amicable, with some built-in tensions regarding what might come to light about Lady Violet’s youth (not to mention, how the Frenchman’s family feels about the Crawleys taking over their summer home, a plot point kicked aside in a way that feels unusually cruel). However, the French villa is also where things eventually fly off the rails for completely unrelated reasons – and I do mean completely.
The other half of the plot unfolds back at the estate, where a silent Hollywood production called The Gambler, led by charming-but-high-strung director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), comes to film at Downton, much to the chagrin of older characters like Violet and her uneasy compatriot Isobel (Penelope Wilton); the duo are finally united, it seems, by their uproarious hatred of cinema. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), now growing into her role as a more “proper” (see also: boring) member of the family (after her dramatic past during the series) oversees the Abbey’s transformation into a mid-19th century gambling den, while her lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and kitchen maid Daisy fawn over a pair of famous stars: the dashing and mysterious Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and the radiant but short-tempered Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). It’s the late 1920s and films are only just leaving the silent era, so the staff and family are surprised to learn that Guy and Myrna are English, and that Myrna has a country accent that everyone around her seems to find grating (including, oddly enough , the working class staff).
While this sets up a subplot about Myrna’s fears of transitioning to Talkies, it’s the first of several moments where Downton Abbey: A New Era skirts into its usually classist territory, only this time, the result verges on shocking and strange even during its most well -meaning attempts to depict class solidarity (screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who show-ran the entire series, is a Tory MP, and any semblance of centrist pretense he brought to the series finally fades away). However, as has been the mantra during this review: would it truly be Downton Abbey if it approached its premise in any other way?
Where the film lets the series down, however, is in its conception as a sequel. Only a handful of characters get actual follow-ups to their existing stories. For one, the comically anxious Mr. Molesely (Kevin Doyle), who now watches The Gambler’s rolling cameras with the same starry-eyed gaze he had for the Queen (he longs to be part of the movies the way he once longed to serve royalty). For another, the out-of-the-closet-by-1920s-standards head butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), whose evolution from scheming villain to sympathetic figure has been moving. Barrow may not have the lion’s share of screentime, but the question of what lies in his future – as someone who once walled himself from other people, but now wants nothing more than a real connection – is one the film makes surprisingly central.
It is, however, the only really concise story in the entire movie, a problem that stems from the fact that while characters make reference to people and events in the show’s past, almost none of them act like any of it actually happened. Some lines of dialogue come off in dreadfully poor taste if you remember the basic events of the series, because the characters, it seems, do not. For instance, Lady Mary’s husband Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) doesn’t appear, likely due to scheduling conflicts, and his absence is hand-waved away as being rooted in his love for driving fast cars, an explanation Mary delivers without a hint of awareness, concern, or dramatic irony considering the fact that her first husband, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), died in a car accident. Mary isn’t the only one; While the couples are all largely happy, no one but the lonely Barrow behaves like tragedy or ill-fate has ever befallen them in any way, despite us having seen this. They’re all smiles and cheers with no real human weight, which is part of what keeps the film afloat with such a light and personable tone at first, but it’s also what causes it to eventually swerve harder than Matthew on a slippery road, straight into melodrama so sudden and gloomy that it feels immediately uncanny.
When things get dark, the Crawleys and their servants aren’t real people experiencing tragedies – they most certainly were even when the show was at its most broadly melodramatic – but rather, they’re shadows of the characters they once were, reduced now to their plot function as joke-delivery machines and, more importantly in the context of Downton’s refusal to die, as figures who represent a desire return to some phantomic English way of life where things were easier when no one raised their voice. What is equally strange is that once the film’s thematic seams begin to show (it becomes nauseatingly conservative at times, all but holding up a sign saying “Wasn’t the aristocracy better?”), It also begins falling apart aesthetically.
While its first hour or so breathes like one of the series’ Christmas Specials – one-off events and escapades to new locations where arcs were wrapped up —its second hour seems to feature an entire season’s worth of story squished into half a film. The result is entire plot points unfolding and resolving over the course of single scenes, which feel both truncated as they speed through their respective tales, and like they linger far too long before cutting away, holding on reactions shots that seem intended to convey some kind of meaning or hint at some future drama, but they come off more like mistakes in the edit. Before long, the tone thrusts violently back and forth between the kind of dry, stiff-upper-lip humor the show was known for, and the surprisingly grim theatricality it was also known for – but where these contrasting moments had room to breathe during hour -long episodes, here, they step on each other constantly, yielding emotional dissonance in every moment. It’s ghastly to witness, and yet, it’s almost admirable that a series known for peppering bits of everything along the way should (apparently) end with a concentrated overload of everything all at once, to the point that it feels like a death dream about the show.
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Downton Abbey’s nascent ugliness is front and center this time – its tendency to turn moneyed lineage into a virtue becomes less hidden behind its humor – but one has to wonder if this wasn’t always in the cards. It feels like the dying gasp of a series that has had nowhere to go for some time (it ended quite definitely seven years ago!) So its trip down memory lane can’t help but ride the line between a rendezvous through greatest-hits character beats and a navel-gazing return to the Abbey’s ornate halls. Eventually, A New Era obliterates that line altogether, along with all others, plunging an otherwise quaint and amusing story into some of the most bizarre tonal chaos you’ve ever seen. If that’s not worth a ticket purchase, few things are.