Arts movie review

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’: an ostinato of dry wit and changing times

The beloved cast of characters returns to face unexpected inheritances, concealed secrets, and blossoming romances

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Laura Haddock as Myrna Dalgleish in ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era.’
Courtesy of Focus Features

Downton Abbey: A New Era
Directed by Simon Curtis
Screenplay by Julian Fellowes
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, and Brendan Coyle
Rated PG, Now Playing

Downton Abbey: A New Era is the sequel to the first Downton Abbey movie, which itself followed six seasons of the highly acclaimed British period drama series. The eponymous series and films are all set on the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey and follow the lives of an aristocratic family (the “upstairs” characters) and their domestic servants (the “downstairs” characters) in the early 1900s, whose traditions and conventions are upset by world wars, changing social structures, and more.

The film begins on a happy note with the wedding of Tom Branson (Allan Leech), an Irish revolutionary, and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), who met during the events of the previous film. However, the serene picture at the estate is soon upset in more ways than one, and the rest of the film is spent watching how the characters adapt, with varying levels of success. Lady Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the matriarch of the family, has been bequeathed a villa in the South of France by a French marquis who recently passed. Violet indicates that she spent a very special week at the villa with the marquis decades ago, but does not let on more. She decides to pass on the villa to her grandchild Sybbie Branson (Fifi Hart), who does not yet possess a grand property, and the matter is seemingly resolved, until the family receives an invitation to visit the villa from the marquis’s son.

Downton has also received a request from a film director to shoot a silent movie on the grounds. Violet, her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), and the butler Mr. Carson (James Edward Carter) are unsurprisingly appalled at the prospect of having uncouth actors walking through Downton’s refined halls. However, they ultimately cannot argue with the rational rhetoric of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Robert’s daughter, nor turn down the director’s offering price, which would allow the family to afford much needed repairs to Downton’s leaky roofs and drafty walls.

At that, the family parts ways as Robert and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), their daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), their son in law Tom and his wife Lucy, Mr. Carson, and Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), a family friend, head to the South of France, while Mary, Violet, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), and the remainder of the staff remain at Downton to oversee the film shoot.

As the movie progresses, the crew of the silent film receives more screen time, from Jack Barber (Hugh Dancey), the charming director who is drawn to Mary’s pragmatic personality, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), the beautiful leading actress with a not-so-beautiful voice, and Guy Dexter (Dominic West), the leading actor who develops a subtle romance with Mr. Barrow (Rob James-Collier). The silent film actors also highlight the social differences between the United States, a land of opportunity, and the United Kingdom, a land steeped in tradition. The remaining family of the French marquis adds an element of intrigue and conflict, from his son (Jonathan Zaccaï), who shows the family nothing but kindness as he believes Robert Crawley to be his biological brother, to his widowed wife (Nathalie Baye), who harbors a bitter resentment towards the family and Violet in particular.

The film is filled with heartwarming moments, and Violet’s dry, witty humor never disappoints. (In fact, her wit might be a reason to watch the film in and of itself.)The characters are tested and forced to decide between following their passions or conforming to the lifestyle they have led for years. As we watch the cast of characters, we realize how much they have grown, how much they have left to grow, and what they ultimately value. Mary, much like Violet in her youth, must choose between pursuing a momentary romance or upholding the stability she has built for her family overtime. Edith must decide how to balance her life as a mother and as a self-driven professional. Myrna, the glamorous actress, must decide whether she will allow herself to fall into self-pity and be left behind by the advent of spoken film, or apply herself to improve her elocution.

The costumes and scenery in the film are as luxurious and splendid as to be expected. Mary dons more day-to-day clothing than glittering evening gowns, allowing the  experience of a different aspect of late 1920s fashion. As the family head to the South of France, they attempt to adapt their wardrobe to the warm beachy weather, and their personalities shine through their fashion choices. Carson stubbornly bakes in his English suits, and Edith demonstrates her avante-garde personality by wearing trousers and Coco Chanel-inspired outfits. Robert’s navy blue suits stand out from the more relaxed white linen of his French hosts.

This Downton iteration also felt more focused on the “upstairs” household. Perhaps due to the time constraints of the film, many “downstairs” characters such as Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) did not undergo much development at all. At least, the “downstairs” characters that did receive more camera time were granted satisfying character arcs.

Downton Abbey: A New Era throws its usual curveballs at the beloved cast, yet the household as a whole manages to continue on, adapting to the changes while still managing to keep some of its traditions in place. This film is a lighthearted must-watch for long-time Downton fans and will entertain historical fiction lovers with its wit and glamor.