Downton Abbey returns to the big screen for a second round following the 2019 movie and six seasons of the critically acclaimed TV series. And with the exception of Matthew Goode, whose character is away for business, the entire ensemble cast is back.
Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the matriarch of the Crawley family, reveals that she has inherited a French villa from an old flame that she spent a short time with during her youth.
She gifts the villa to her former chauffeur (the widower of her great granddaughter) and upon knowledge of the acquired estate, the family sets off for a summer visit to France at the invitation of the villa’s current custodian. But upon their arrival, secrets are revealed and a mystery presents itself to be solved.
Meanwhile, back at Downton, a film crew has taken over the residence and begins shooting a major motion picture. It’s “lights, camera, action” as two of Hollywood’s biggest stars send the star-struck staff into a tizzy, and the Lady Talbot (co-owner of the estate) finds herself part of the production and pursued by the film’s director.
With two concurrent storylines at play, Downton Abbey: A New Era is immediately entertaining. It’s a lighter, more jaunty story with less emphasis on the drama and more focus on a jovial narrative, and with the placement of a mystery for the family to unravel, there’s an ever-so-faint hint of Agatha Christie’s influence woven into its tapestry, as well as a none-too-subtle homage to Singin’ in the Rain.
As fans will attest, one of the television series’ biggest strengths was its ability to ebb and flow between comedy and drama, and its knack for being simultaneously hilarious and devastating was undeniable. A New Era isn’t like that. Instead it has its sights set on simple, light-hearted escapism, which may or may not be a concerted effort to lift the spirits of a pandemic-weary audience.
The cast is in fine form, with each member given a respectable amount of screen time. Some of those whose parts were prominent in the previous film have taken a step back to allow the others some limelight, and considering the size of the ensemble, it’s an impressive feat that no one seems to have been overlooked or downplayed.
Maggie Smith maintains her status as the show-stealer and, again, hogs the best lines. She still has her famous acid tongue, however now that her character is edging closer to her end, she presents a more subtle and self-reflective persona. There’s a romanticism about her that seeps into the two adjacent storylines, and while she isn’t directly involved in either of those tangents, her strong hold on the Abbey lays a foundation for all that transpires.
Michelle Dockery is excellent as Lady Mary Crawley, who is in line to become the new matriarch of the family, and if the film’s subtitle “A New Era” has any significance, it revolves around her. World War II is still a decade away and there are no drastic changes to the family, so her inevitable transition to becoming the head of the clan signifies this new era.
The additions to the cast are merely passing through in the grand scheme of things. Hugh Darcy (Hannibal), Dominic West (The Wire) and Laura Haddock (Guardians of the Galaxy) play the director and lead stars of the visiting film production, respectively, and they breathe some fresh air into the halls of Downton. All three are welcome newcomers, and it’s unfortunate that the nature of their roles means they’re unlikely to return for a potential third film.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is hardly breaking new ground and has all the depth of a wading pool, but it’s also a highly entertaining continuation of the series that aims to please and hits its mark. Long serving fans should be thoroughly satisfied, and newcomers will be grateful to have been given an easy entry point.
In cinemas: April 28, 2022
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Allen Leech
Directed by: Simon Curtis