Downton Abbey: A New Era. They Shoot, They Score.
Our friends at Downton Abbey won’t leave, and the film Downton Abbey: A New Era, which opened Friday, reminds us why we don’t want them to.
At a time when television and movies are awash in psychotic villains and tortured antiheroes, it’s hard to overstate the pleasure of spending two hours in the company of people we just plain like.
While Downton Abbey doesn’t completely ignore the harshness of the world outside a comfortable 1920s British manor house — the path of gay butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) remains troubled — it has nonetheless become a tale without bad guys.
And, with apologies to the generation that grew up on Marvel movies, the Downton Abbey story doesn’t need them.
Rather, it focuses on the sometimes overlooked parts of life where adversity is worked out among mostly reasonable people.
A New Era is set in 1928, about two years after the finale of the TV series and the earlier movie. That’s enough time for several characters to move forward, including Tom Branson (Allen Leech) with Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), and Daisy (Sophie McShera) with Andrew Parker (Michael C. Fox).
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has returned to writing, as we all hoped she would, while Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is working to keep Downton a viable operation. The relationship between the sisters has correspondingly evolved.
But two years has not produced radical change in the lives of most characters. The story’s consensus favorite, Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet, has kept her tongue sharp even as she feels the effects of the terminal illness with which she was diagnosed in the first film.
Discussing newfangled talking movies with her pal Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Violet remarks that the best thing about movies is that you don’t have to hear them.
At one point Violet unexpectedly inherits a villa in France — could happen to anyone, right? — and this seemingly random development turns out to have significant plot consequences. During a family meeting on the subject, Mary asks if Violet had considered rejecting the gift, to which Violet replies, “Do I look like the kind of person who would turn down a villa in France?”
Full disclosure, though, Violet gets a worthy challenge in the biting remarks derby from butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). When a film crew arrives to shoot a movie at Downton, Carson darkly warns his wife Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) that “this is like the fall of the Roman empire.”
Violet and Carson have always been the most militant defenders of the old ways, at least verbally, so this really just reaffirms their positions. Happily, much the same can be said for most of the characters, virtually all of whom have returned. There are two exceptions, neither of whom played long-term central roles in the past, though one absence does spark several pointed references.
The French villa and the movie shoot gently bang into each other to form the main storylines of A New Era, and some reviews have called them a thin yarn from which to weave a movie. That’s an arguable point. It also misses the point, which is that we don’t need the Downton Abbey characters to repel alien invaders or rescue maidens who have been tied to the railroad tracks. Watching them navigate the lives they were most likely to have been living is satisfying and sufficient.
Dropping the production of a fictional movie into the Downton movie introduces opportunities for subtle self-reference that Fellowes is too clever not to seize. It also allows for delightful performances from newcomers Dominic West and Laura Haddock as the stars of the faux film.
Fellowes further can’t resist allusions to Singing In The Rain, and it would be hard to pick a more classic film to which one might tip one’s fashionable 1920s hat.
A New Era maintains the series’s high standards of eye candy, with lavish table settings, costumes and automobiles. Like all filmmakers everywhere today, the Downton producers have fallen in love with drones, so we get to see some of the action from overhead.
There is room for the occasional quibble. The parents here still spend far more time with their children than almost any real-life aristocrat in British history and a scene with a jazz singer, delightful in concept, would work better if the arrangement didn’t sound suspiciously modern.
But nothing is perfect, and in pretty much all the ways that matter, Downton Abbey: A New Era keeps our love affair alive.