Downton Abbey: A New Era

Downton Abbey: A New Era, 2022, 2 ½ stars

False worship at the Abbey

Sequel is enjoyable but compromises show’s soul

Exclusive to MeierMovies, May 16, 2022

In season five, episode six of the original Downton Abbey television show, the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, remarks to her stuffy lady’s maid, Denker, “I hope your standards are not so high as to prevent you from remaining in my employment.”

Julian Fellowes (Downton’s creator, producer and writer) might well have said the same to himself and his collaborators when assembling the latest movie, as Downton Abbey: A New Era, though enjoyable, represents a precipitous drop in quality from the TV show, especially seasons one and two. It’s such a steep drop – thanks to poor pacing, dialed-in performances and contrived, unbelievable and ultimately pointless plot twists – that it left this hardcore Downton fan hoping that New Era is the final chapter in the Crawley story.

That is unlikely, as the plot – after the ridiculous red herrings are cast aside – seems designed for another sequel. Indeed, the film represents not so much a “new era” at Downton as the logical progression of the Crawley family. There’s a marriage, a birth and a death. But as momentous as that latter event is, it’s not surprising, as it was all but promised toward the end of the previous film. And because we’ve had so much time to mentally prepare, once it arrives, it’s not the tearjerker we expected.

That lack of emotion, at least on the part of this reviewer, might be partially explained by the aforementioned herrings, which include a weird trip to the French Riviera, a health scare and a chance at an extramarital affair, which all seem too contrived – even by the standards of the sometimes soapy plots of season four and five of the original show. Further explanation might be found in Fellowes’ hurried and lackluster script, which apparently had to be reworked to explain the absence of Mary’s husband, played by Matthew Goode, who was too busy filming The Offer to appear in New Era. Like the first movie (2019), this is not Fellowes’ finest work and suggests again that he is a better writer for episodic television than feature films. And the screenplay’s shortcomings are exacerbated by director Simon Curtis, who is new to Downton and seems to lack the proper sensibility. This leaves the audience not with a grand cinematic version of the beloved show but, as was the case with the slightly better (or at least more believable) first movie, simply another (longer) episode of the show, and only an average one at that.

The main subplot of the new film involves British Lion Films using Downton Abbey as a shooting location for its new motion picture. Initially hesitant, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) acquiesces because he needs the money – a subplot within the subplot that, along with the changing status of England’s country estates between the wars, should have been explored more deeply if the film wanted to live up to its title. (Political changes in both England and on the continent go oddly unexplored too.)

Nevertheless, the movie within a movie is fascinating, not just because it offers a glimpse of the film industry as it transitioned from silent to sound, but because the real Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle, where the show and films were shot) was faced with a similar decision when approached by Fellowes and Carnival Films. This metatheatrical subplot also facilitates a bit of true happiness (finally) for Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), upping the film’s joy quotient inexorably. And Laura Haddock, as the female star of the film within the film, is an unexpected delight.

“Nothing in life is sure,” Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) says when she learns of the Titanic sinking in the show’s first episode, back in 2010. The same is true for Downton Abbey itself, especially in regards to the quality of the two feature films. But, like the Crawleys, the new movie has its strengths and weakness, its ups and downs – no class-structure pun intended. And you must decide, as did Denker, whether to adjust your own standards.

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For more on this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia. And for my review of the first film, go here.