What’s most curious about 2019’s Downton Abbey and now its sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, is how modest they seem compared to its acclaimed ITV/PBS series of the same name.
Though perhaps not always fraught with tension, there’s the general sense — so far as I can gather, at least, as an outside viewer looking into the show — that the upscale Crawley estate was typically dealing with some heavy hardships and sorrows throughout their proper pageantry. There were wars fought, for instance, and great times of despondency shared between these well-dressed figures. But in rather stark contradiction, the 2019 revival movie opted to keep up pleasant appearances. Notably, where other TV-to-film transitions have used the bigger screen to tell bigger stories, filled with higher stakes and grander scales, the Downton Abbey films will follow the opposite formula. Content with giving fans a chance to spend two more lavish hours with these cordial, proper, well-to-do characters, these two movies stay amicable and appealing, not looking to cause a fuss or stir the pot too much — which plays to their benefit and detriment.
Much like the show and its previous film, there’s an appealingly fantastical quality to Downton Abbey: A New Era. It’s fondly nostalgic for a time when the period drama TV series was at the height of its powers — dramatically, critically, and commercially — and for a time when the folks watching it didn’t have burdensome things like a global pandemic weighing on their minds. Ultimately, it’s looking back at a simpler time — not merely a near-century ago, where the story takes place, but a decade prior, when the audience wasn’t mentally preoccupied with the uneasy state of the world. It’s a bit regressive, maybe, but it’s also meant to be evocative of the kind, orderly affairs of these polite British monarchs who held up the prim, posh standards of politeness, elegance, and buttoned-down decency. It’s about returning to a day and age when everything made more sense — an understandable balm in the ever-increasingly senseless times that we’re trapped in.
It’s a fable, to be sure, but it’s certainly a handsome, well-written, enduringly comfortable one — based in fact enough to not feel as though it’s full of fancy but not honest enough to make you reflect too harshly on the difficulties that plagued these times. Certainly, Downton Abbey likes to lean into the lie, and Downton Abbey: A New Era can be as whimsical as it is slight. It can often be consistently fun and fabulous, but also facetious and fleeting. Much like the appealing times that it portrays, it’s not meant to last. Eventually, it recesses in your mind, and it’s hard to have it latch onto your memory. But maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be. It’s a momentary escape, an agreeable, short-lived opportunity to get reacquainted with the courteous characters that people have grown to love throughout the years, but not one that’s meant to withstand the test of time.
Returning to the silver screen for another lovely, lavish, ultra-English affair, the Crawley estate is quickly set into their respective storylines early into A New Era. Shortly after the family monarch, Violet (Maggie Smith), announces that she has inherited a villa in the South of France, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and a few other family members, along with the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, a constant delight), set a course for France to assume ownership of their new piece of land. But as Robert gets settled into the place, it doesn’t take too long for him to discover some hidden secrets, which might very well shake the family’s core. Though, again, there’s no rousing sense that there’s a building sense of terror or genuine threat. This is all window dressing, the illusion of dramatic thrills. Let’s just say that it’s unlikely that anyone will need to pop some Xanax throughout the proceedings — if you can catch my drift.
Meanwhile, over at the Crawley estate, the lighter and more agreeable plot kicks into motion. As Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is tending to the house along with Violet, an exciting development befalls the place. A Hollywood film production inquires about filming a silent movie in the historic home, and as the place is in desperate need of repairs, the Crawleys agree to host the crew, heralded by a charming silent film director (Hugh Dancy), who takes a quick liking to the lady of the house. When the production doesn’t quite go as planned, Lady Mary finds herself, along with the caretakers of the house, more involved with the shoot than she would’ve anticipated. Meanwhile, the help is instantly won over by the production’s male lead (Dominic West), a handsome gentleman with loose secrets, while also facing one of their biggest challenges yet: a rude, impolite woman (Laura Haddock), who serves as the silent film’s insecure leading lady.
While it does play in the movie’s frothy core, the film-within-the-film moments also tend to play in the movie’s most charming, agreeable moments. There’s a genuine glee in screenwriter Julian Fellows exploring what it took to put together a film production a century ago, during the change from silent films to talkies, and how it ushers in a new era — hence, the title — for these starchy traditionalist characters. They might not ever escape their time, but they can find themselves in the transition of a developing period, where people casually become more emboldened and can even escape some of their well-dressed images — even if it has to sometimes be kept private.
It’s in these moments that this new Downton Abbey movie shines, and maybe even outshines the original film, because it showcases a sense of cinematic grandeur that can otherwise be lost in this television-to-film franchise. In these moments of creativity and innovation, we can see a turning of the tides, even if in small strokes, and it allows the film to indulge in and/or subvert its frivolous impulses. It’s not enough to make a big impact, but it’s enough to keep it in good fun.
Particularly with a final note that concludes a grand-standing chapter of this long-standing show, Downton Abbey: A New Era does have a greater sense of finality than its previous film, though it does give the fans what they hope to find from a return to the Crawley empire. The quick-witted dialogue is always sharp, and the performances are often sharper — including the newcomers like Dancy, Haddock, and West, who make a good impression and provide good company with our established leads. Though ultimately too delicate and dapper to withstand a long stay in the minds of anyone who isn’t obsessed with the beloved series, A New Era returns everyone to an old favorite while also showcasing a forward-thinking mentality that can serve as a fine farewell — should it truly be the end of an era. Only time, of course, will ultimately tell if that’s the case.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is now playing in the UK and opens in the US on May 20 through Focus Features. Watch the trailer here.