The best compliment I can pay Downton Abbey: A New Era is the same compliment I paid the first Downton Abbey movie. Namely, someone like me who has never seen the show can generally follow the plot and enjoy the film. (Okay, it helps if you at least familiarize yourself with the basics ahead of time.) Another nice feature is that this sequel has a major plot thread about making movies. Anyone with an interest in the era of silent cinema will be engaged by the backstage drama shown here.
Two major storylines dominate the proceedings. In the first, a film crew wants to use Downton Abbey as a location for their newest production. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) allows it, as the estate needs some repair and the money earned would go a long way toward accomplishing this. The staff is starstruck when actors Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) arrive. The performers, however, are deep in the realization that “talkies” are changing the cinematic landscape, potentially rendering them obsolete in the very near future. Mary ends up helping Myrna in a very unusual way on that count.
In the other story, Violet (Maggie Smith) has unexpectedly inherited a French villa from a man she knew decades ago. It's unclear to son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) why, so he goes to meet the deceased guy's wife – who is none too happy about this development – and son. What he learns shocks him, provided that it's true. Intertwined with the major arcs are several mini ones. Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier) forms a connection with Dexter, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) deals with a health issue, and, in a particularly hilarious bit, Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) ends up with a position of prominence within the film crew.
Viewers familiar with Downton Abbey and its movie spin-off will find the elements they expect – strong performances from the entire cast, witty dialogue (especially from the ever-sarcastic Violet), and the intricate detail that immerses you in life at the estate. Writer Julian Fellows has to balance a lot of characters, but he wisely moves people who were in the background last time to the foreground this time, and vice versa. He does this while still managing to give each familiar face at least one prominent moment. And because every single one of those characters is perfectly cast, it doesn't matter who's onscreen. All of them are interesting.
Downton Abbey: A New Era follows a similar path as its immediate predecessor, bringing in outsiders to shake things up. Instead of a visit from the king, it's a visit from a film crew. Watching how the characters react to the intrusion of these stars makes for great fun. For example, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is less than impressed. Daisy (Sophie McShera), on the other hand, is like a moth to a flame. She can't get close enough to Myrna. The section about the French villa is good, too, although the making-a-movie stuff is the true highlight.
The one area where the picture stumbles is in having too much going on simultaneously. A lot of scenes are incredibly short, with characters saying the bare minimum needed to advance the plot before cutting to something else. More than once, sequences end just as they seem to be getting good. This happens more in the first half than in the second, and it's a natural byproduct of having a large ensemble. Still, paring a little from the minor stuff might have resolved the issue.
Downton Abbey: A New Era offers plenty of entertainment, despite that small flaw. Spending time with these characters in that estate offers a sense of comfort, whether you watched every episode of the show or just the previous film.
Downton Abbey: A New Era comes to 4K Ultra, Blu-ray, and DVD collector's edition on July 5, 2022. There are some really nice bonus features included on the disc, including an informative commentary track with director Simon Curtis and a digital copy of the movie. The other supplements are:
”Good To Be Back” - This short segment features cast members discussing their return to the world of Downton Abbey for a second cinematic go-round. It's clear that they are all gratified by the response the first movie got, and eager to give fans another reunion with these characters.
”Return to Downton Abbey: The Making of A New Era” - This is a more traditional making-of feature. It looks at the period detail in food and costumes, how the filmmakers worked to make the scenes set in France feel different from those at Downton Abbey, and coming up with the plot for this sequel.
”A Legendary Character” - A tribute to actress Maggie Smith. Cast members rightly sing her praises, but the highlight is seeing the cast and crew honor Smith when she completed her final day of shooting. They lined up all the way to her car, giving her a hearty round of applause as she left the set.
”Creating the Film Within the Film” - This is arguably the best of the supplementary material. It goes into detail on how Downton Abbey: A New Era went to great lengths to make the shooting of the silent movie authentic. A camera used to film Ben-Hur and make all the animated sequences from Monty Python's Flying Circus was used as a prop, and the whole plot thread was based on an actual silent movie that tried to turn itself into a “talkie” at the last minute. Those are just two of the interesting nuggets from this piece.
”Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia” - This is a 3-minute look at the history of the royal ship and how it came to be used for a key sequence in the movie.
”Spill the Tea (Time)” - Also running three minutes, this segment features Allen Leech and Laura Carmichael answering questions and providing behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Downton Abbey: A New Era will please fans, and the bonus features add additional fun. To purchase a copy on Amazon, click here.
out of four
Downton Abbey: A New Era is rated PG for some suggestive references, language, and thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.