Comfortingly predictable, this second Downton Abbey movie does what it ought to do, with writer Julian Fellowes providing some cosy fan service and director Simon Curtis keeping everything light and luscious looking.
Like the last movie, Downton Abbey: A New Era feels more like a glorified Christmas special than a fully developed feature film. Plotting is a little clunky and contrived, and dialogue is often obvious, but that’s mostly beside the point. What Fellowes offers is a couple of easy, escapist hours spent with characters developed over six seasons of television.
In this familiar upstairs-downstairs world, we get Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) griping, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) humphing, Daisy (Sophie McShera) dreaming. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) bumbles, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) twinkles, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) does her duty.
There are love matches to be made, conflicts to be smoothed over, fabulous frocks to be worn, Dowager Countess zingers to be zinged.
The movie starts with a wedding, and immediately proceeds to a somewhat arbitrary divvying up of the main cast.
News breaks that a French aristocrat, the Comte de Montmirail, has inexplicably left the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, magnificent as ever) a villa in the south of France. A Crawley contingent heads across the channel to see the villa and meet the count’s son and widow. Partly, this expedition falls into the familiar trope of the British going abroad and loosening their buttons a little under the influence of the Mediterranean sun.
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) comes along to do a piece on summering on the Riveria and to prove one can raise two children while also working as a journalist. (Really, how does she manage?) Lord Grantham, unfortunately, is rather preoccupied with his mother’s mysterious past and her relationship with “this Montmirail chap.”
The old butler, Mr. Carson, has been dragged along and proceeds to sort out the villa’s supposedly lax continental servants on matters of laying a table and ironing a shirt. “They’re very French, the French,” Carson observes. “Poor things.”
Meanwhile, back at the Abbey, Lady Mary has agreed to lease the house to a film crew making a newfangled “cinematograph.” While the Crawleys consider it common to talk of money, they do need a new roof, and Hollywood is flush. Beyond the baize door, the servants are star-struck.
This subplot is the more promising of the two, allowing some comical meta-commentary on the “rough and vulgar” nature of actors. The house will be full of “actresses plastered with makeup and actors just plastered,” laments Lord Grantham. “I would rather earn my living down a mine,” sniffs the Dowager Countess.
In the absence of her husband, who is away racing cars (probably actor Matthew Goode has decided he has other things to do), Lady Mary ponders a flirtation with the charming director (Hugh Dancy).
In a bit cribbed from Singin’ in the Rain, the two stars, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) and Guy Dexter (Dominic West), must negotiate the transition from silent-era pictures to talkies, a particularly tricky journey for Miss Dalgleish, who has a grating voice and Cockney accent.
The rogueish Guy has other secrets, which start to come out as he and the new butler, Barrow (Robert James-Collier), exchange some of Downton’s trademark significant glances.
Of course, the film’s subtitle, A New Era, is utter nonsense. One presumes this is Mr. Fellowes’ little joke. At Downton Abbey, the characters may be confronted with telephones, world wars, jazz, workers wanting a decent wage, etc., etc., and the Crawleys are always bravely announcing, “Times change, and we must change, too.” But really, as we head toward the 1930s — and a possible third movie — not much dents Fellowes’ cheerfully fixed feudal order. That’s what fans want, and that’s what this affectionate, amiable film provides.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.