CAST: Nathalie Baye, Hugh Bonneville, Samantha Bond, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Jonathan Coy, Brendan Coyle, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Haddock, Sue Johnston, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Penelope Wilton
RUNNING TIME: 125 mins
BASICALLY…: The residents and staff of Downton Abbey deal with film crews and French villas…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Much like the show both are based on, the Downton Abbey movies are pure escapist fairy tale fantasy. It’s not so much comfort food, but comfort caviar; a vision of upper-class British society that is presented in such a pleasant, undemanding and even inconsequential manner that makes the numerous hierarchies in Game of Thrones seem more realistic by comparison, but at the same time that is exactly its appeal to international audiences. Like all the best fairy tales, one can easily insert themselves into the make-believe world and see themselves as either thriving members of the aristocracy or loyal working-class household servants, either of which suits the participant well seeing how simple the writing and characterisations make them all seem.
The fairy tale continues with the second film adaptation of the hit TV series, as Downton Abbey: A New Era offers plenty more of the same, reliably light formula that has charmed audiences around the world, though unlike the successful first movie there isn’t a whole lot of room for newer audiences less familiar with this world to quickly settle in to its many, many overlapping storylines and characters.
As ever, we follow the lives of the wealthy Crawley family, living on the Downton Abbey estate in Yorkshire, and their several household staff in early 20th century Britain. Two major storylines quickly emerge: the first sees Crawley matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) reveal that she has been bequeathed a villa in the South of France by a former suitor, prompting her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and several of their family and friends, including retired butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), to travel across the Channel to find out why the villa was left in the aging Countess’ name. The second sees Hollywood come to Downton as Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) allows film director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) to shoot his new silent film at the estate, with leading actors Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) starring – but it isn’t long before the production, and Myrna’s less-than-desirable behaviour, causes ripples throughout the building.
As I did in my review for the first film back in 2019, I feel that it is vital to point out that I am not an avid watcher of the original show, nor am I entirely familiar with most of its characters and plot lines outside of what popular culture excessively highlights. However, this wasn’t exactly a problem with that first Downton Abbey movie, for while it certainly catered to long-time fans it also found room for newer audience members unfamiliar with the show to at least get a taste of its charm and likeability. Not so much with A New Era, which pretty much throws you straight into the drama under the presumption that you already know each and every one of these people, with little time to catch up on anything that’s been going on with them between movies and series. In that sense, it will be more difficult for newcomers to absorb this film than the previous one, for since it still retains that gentle, nurturing tone that has beset this IP from the beginning, the fact that this film jumps right into everything without so much as an introduction to who, say, Hugh Bonneville or Penelope Wilton are playing makes it a little less friendly to general audiences, like myself, that might never have seen an episode of Downton Abbey.
That being said, the appeal of self-insertion into wealthy lifestyles is still active (yes, even during the middle of a cost-of-living crisis in the UK), and the characters are gentle and likeable enough to enjoy watching, but fans of more sophisticated and complex storylines might be taken aback by just how light and inconsequential it is. This really is a film that’s made up of a series of events working out perfectly fine, with each conflict – whether it’s a romantic subplot, a cancer scare, or issues with the transition from silent film to audible dialogue – being easily resolved with simple logic and a dash of fairy tale wish fulfilment (one long-running character, who happens to have written a play, is suddenly hired as a well-paid screenwriter). Whether or not that’s something you can tolerate is entirely up to you, but know that Downton Abbey – the movies at least, though from what one hears about it, so does the show – thrives on uncomplicated scenarios that cater exclusively to a demographic that craves not for intense drama or fierce condemnation of high society, but just wants to lose themselves in a fantastical world of extravagant costumes, beautiful locations, and maybe even the odd share of handsome suitors. To them, that is what Downton Abbey represents, and it should be respected as much as one respects certain other fandoms, providing they do not become too toxic-minded.
To the average filmgoer, there are plenty of little things one can pick up on – aside from the inconsequential plotting, some of the dialogue is very cheesy and a bit too aware of its soft, safe grasp upon certain viewers, and scenes will randomly come to an end after delivering some important bits of exposition – but it’s ultimately hard to criticise something that most people will already have made up their minds on seeing or not. Fans will definitely want to check this out, and are likely to get the most emotional impact out of it, including a bittersweet climax that does change the overall dynamic considerably (to a point where you actually wonder if they even can make another movie after this), but newcomers may want to stick with the first movie, for it at least offers them a more satisfactory introduction to this fairy tale world than this decent, but much more fan-friendly, follow-up.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Downton Abbey: A New Era retains most of the fairy tale charm that the series and previous movie radiated, with plenty of moments that are bound to please long-time fans of the show, although newcomers will find themselves much more lost here than in the first film adaptation, which at least offered a more satisfactory introduction to this world and its numerous characters.