Watching Downton Abbey: A New Era is as comforting as wearing an old pair of slippers. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) don’t disappoint.
There will be sweeping aerial shots of Downton, the country pile belonging to the Grantham family. The plot will be packed with soapy melodrama. And Dame Maggie Smith’s withering (but no shrinking) Violet will get all the best lines. “Don’t steer me, I’m not a racing car,” she chides her maid, as she tries to aid her mobility.
It may be a new era — the action has now moved onto the cusp of the 1930s — but there’s very little adjustment to the formula that made the original British TV show so successful.
While the earlier big-screen outing, 2019’s Downton Abbey, saw everyone in a tizzy over a Royal visit, A New Era splits the characters across two plotlines. With Downton’s roof in need of repair, the Crawley family reluctantly agree to allow film company British Lion to shoot their latest silent picture, The Gambler in the house.
Enter amiable director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), and his two stars, Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). The servants, particularly Daisy (Sophie McShera), are thrilled — at least until they meet the rude, offhand Dalgleish, whose own grating Cockney accent will soon be an issue with the advent of the "talkies" just around the corner. Meanwhile, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) lead a party to the South of France.
Violet has been left a luxurious villa in the will of a former lover that she last saw 60 years ago. Naturally, his widow (Nathalie Baye) is contesting this generous gift, but his son (Jonathan Zaccai) is more amiable, keen to respect his father’s last wishes and meet the family who will inherit the property. It leads to a paternity storyline and an amusing Brits abroad sequence, as the ever-faithful Carson (Jim Carter) insists on playing butler and wearing his full regalia in the sweltering Mediterranean heat.
Packing plenty in across its two-hour running time, despite the new additions to the cast, A New Era doesn't forget its core coterie of characters, with a swell of mini plots. Upstairs, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) oversees the filming — and even saves the day on more than one occasion — while Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) looks to revitalise her journalism career, writing about the likes of F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their love of the French Riviera. Downstairs, the excitable ex-footman Molesley (Kevin Doyle, performing beautifully) gets a chance to change his life in ways he never expected.
There is a danger with so many characters and storylines that it could feel a little flimsy, but Fellowes is a fine architect of emotion, and knows exactly when to tug on the heartstrings. There’s even a reference to someone dying from Spanish Flu, a line that really hits home in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. True, some may balk at the fact he leans heavily on a plotline from the classic musical Singin’ In The Rain for Myrna’s story, but it’s done with humour and heart. Haddock is particularly good as the silent star — a latter-day Eliza Doolittle who has yet to find her Henry Higgins.
While there isn’t a showstopping moment quite like the Royal parade seen in the previous film, A New Era’s charm comes from the elegant plate-spinning achieved by Fellowes, who lets most of the characters have their moment in the dappled sunshine. Taking over from Michael Engler, who directed the 2019 movie, Curtis slips effortlessly into the role, drawing on all his experience making BBC period dramas such as Cranford. He understands exactly that Downton Abbey is all about wish-fulfilment, a nostalgic time portal to 1900s British aristocracy.
From the opening scene onwards, when Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) weds her beau Tom Branson (Allen Leech) in sumptuous surroundings, A New Era is suitably divine to look at. When Molesley calls Hollywood “the ultimate dream factory”, he could just as easily be talking about the dreamy world of Downton. Gorgeous costumes (by Anna Robbins and Maja Meschede) and balmy Mediterranean backdrops add to the beauty.
If the mystery surrounding Violet’s villa inheritance is a rather damp squib, Dame Maggie Smith — as you would expect — brings all the poignancy in the film’s final scenes. Ultimately, Fellowes's script does exactly what fans will want — it’ll make you laugh, make you cry and make you wish there was another series in the works.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is out now in the UAE