It might not be the epitome of blockbuster entertainment, but I do understand the appeal of “Downton Abbey.” The British television series, which ran from 2010-2015, is recognized as the most acclaimed “international” series in Emmy history. And of course, it developed a fandom based on its impeccable 1920’s costumes and sets, as well as its intricate storylines and snappy dialogue. A post-series movie came out in 2019, and made just short of $100 million at the domestic box office. That performance warranted a sequel with “A New Era.” I don’t think the new film will find the same success as its predecessor, as it’s opening in a “New Era” of its own, one where theater attendance is way down. But I would love to be proven wrong, as this is a very enjoyable movie.
Everyone from the aristocrats to the servants has a story at Downton Abbey, with over 20 billed characters interacting. The movie does the abundant cast better justice than I can in my story summation. Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) inherits a villa in the south of France from an acquaintance she hasn’t seen in decades. Her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) brings his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and a host of family members and servants to the villa to meet the benefactor’s son (Jonathan Zaccai) and hopefully uncover the nature of their parents’ relationship (Robert fears the worst).
Meanwhile, Downton Abbey itself plays host to a film crew using the mansion for a location shoot, much to the chagrin of older family and staff who consider movies vulgar. Robert’s daughter and estate manager Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) oversees the chaos, including the film being changed from a silent to a talkie midway through. Lady Mary is quick to volunteer her services, which impresses director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy). Diva actress Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) is rude to everybody, but changes her tune in humility when the changes don’t play to her strengths. Dashing leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) takes up a relationship with head butler Barrow (Robert-James Collier). Former footman Molesley (Kevin Doyle) discovers he has a gift for writing screenplays. And much, much more!
So much of this movie is just so pleasant. Problems like the production shutting down or a character’s health scare never seem to last more than a single-digit number of minutes (raising the question as to why the health scare was included at all). Relationship successes, professional fulfillment, and moments to shine abound in the last act. It’s almost too pleasant for a spell, like the happiness-to-sadness ratio is distractingly unrealistic. But then there is an inevitable sad part, crucial to “Downton Abbey” lore, something that fans have probably been surprised has taken this long to transpire. But it’s handled perfectly, with appropriate sensitivity and even trademark wit.
All the best things about “Downton Abbey” are out in full force in “A New Era,” from the acting to the writing to the production design. I’d say it might be in line for an Oscar nomination or two if its release weren’t buried so early in the year. Will there be more of “Downton Abbey,” on big screen or small? My guess is yes, since absolutely everything gets run into the ground in this era. But I shudder to think of continuation, because this is the perfect stopping point for this franchise. Then again, I wasn’t sure if “A New Era” would work, and my doubts have been proven unfounded.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is rated PG for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements. Its running time is 124 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.