Tuesday, July 5, 2022

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ Review: A Charming, Comforting Return to a Familiar Place

Downton Abbey‘s television run may have come to an end years ago, but the Crawley family (and their beloved servants) still continue to live on in theatrical form. Picking up shortly after the first film released in 2019, Downton Abbey: A New Era sees a new adventure for the residents of Downton — the house is being used as a backdrop for a movie, and the Dowager Countess has inherited a villa in the South of France.

It comes as no surprise that Downton Abbey: A New Era is yet another lovely, heartwarming, and entertaining addition from creator Jullian Fellowes. The movie isn’t afraid to veer into tearjerker territory with its emotional moments — because this is a drama, after all — but it’s ultimately a feel-good experience that will leave audiences feeling warm and content by the time the credits start to roll. And in between the happy smiles and the melancholy tears, there is — of course — plenty of laughter (much of it courtesy of Kevin Doyle’s Molesley).

With two major plotlines unraveling at the same time, the characters are required to split off into two groups for most of the film — one to remain at the house while the film is being made and the other to visit the beautiful home that will now belong to Violet. In spite of the unrelated nature of these events, both stories prove to be incredibly entertaining and intriguing in their own right … especially the movie production. As with all previous steps toward modernization throughout the series — “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.” — the household is decidedly split on the increasing popularity of filmmaking (and the resulting aftermath of it all is just as delightfully amusing as one would come to expect from Downton). Watching history play out through the eyes of the characters of Downton Abbey has always been a treat.

Downton Abbey: A New Era Still
Ben Blackall/Focus Features
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Captivating as it may be, one of the film’s minor struggles — which it shares with the first — is its pacing. A New Era offers up an enticing platter of stories, but I only wish that some of the events that took place, and the build-up to them, could have been experienced in the same carefully built-up format that was utilized in the series. The film essentially feels as if it’s trying to stuff a season’s worth of content into a two-hour runtime, balancing a web of plotlines that would have each individually taken a full episode to explore, if given the chance. Realistically though, with no plans for a comeback season, using condensed plotlines was necessary in order to allow the film enough time to focus on each member of the large ensemble cast. So while some of the storytelling parameters may not be ideal, I, for one, am still grateful to have had yet another chance to return to Downton.

Otherwise, pacing issues aside, everything else about A New Era still feels like a seamless extension of what audiences have come to know and love from the series. Despite the years since the series finale, the cast all manage to slip back into their roles once more like no time has passed at all. And as a viewer, it’s wonderfully comforting to see the whole gang back together again. On the writing side, character development flourishes, reminding viewers of just how much these characters have grown and changed (and all that they’ve been through) since day one. Robert James-Collier’s Thomas Barrow, in particular, continues to be a fascinating, layered character. Regardless of how unlikable he may have been in the past, his newfound maturity as the butler of Downton will leave audiences rooting for him.

Downton Abbey has never had a shortage of strong female characters, and this latest movie is no exception. Maggie Smith’s Violet will forever be the heart of the series and its subsequent films, dishing out her beloved trademark witty quips to all who dare cross her path. In the absence of Matthew Goode’s Henry Talbot, Michelle Dockery still reminds audiences that Lady Mary has always had a way of commanding a room with her bold, poised attitude, with or without a man by her side. Tuppence Middleton also makes her return as Lucy Branson, now married to Tom, and given how well she fits in with the existing cast, it’s a shame that we weren’t able to meet her character earlier on in the series.

The cast is rounded out by an array of newcomers: Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, and Jonathan Zaccaï. Dancy was a notably enjoyable addition to the Downton crew as Jack Barber, the director of a film within a film (and I certainly wouldn’t say no to seeing him again in a future installment).

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A third film has not yet been confirmed, but here’s to hoping that this isn’t the last magical return to the alluring, charming escapism of Downton Abbey.

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