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.
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.