'Downton Abbey: A New Era' -— Hit Brit Sequel Not so New, but Not so Bad

by Brian Bromberger

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday May 17, 2022

A full cast composite for 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'
A full cast composite for 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'   

During the course of the new film, "Downton Abbey: A New Era," which finally arrives in theaters after two reschedules, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) remarks to his French hosts, "I'm afraid we've even brought our English butler. I'm not quite sure why."

One could apply the last comment to the entire movie, but that would be gauche, because "Downton Abbey" never pretends to be anything more than what it is: A romanticized, frothy soap opera fantasy with expensive china that will warm you like a well-worn angora sweater.

A friend who accompanied me to the press screening observed, "You know I never saw the Masterpiece series or the previous movie, but it didn't matter. I could easily follow what was going on," which isn't a glowing testimonial about the quality of the screenplay.

Of course, the first "Downton Abbey" 2019 film about the royal visit from the king and queen of England to the Yorkshire castle, with an alleged $13 million budget, raked in $238 million worldwide, which explains the origins of this second sequel.

Still, whatever the film's many flaws, if you are a fan or a devotee you will have a swell time, but if not, you might wonder what all the fuss has been and why briefly over a decade ago "Downton Abbey" was a global phenomenon.

The subtitle, "A New Era," is disingenuous, since viewers are served the same shop-worn characters and creaky three-minute mini-crises, using the oldest soap opera cliché conventions (i.e. a suddenly manufactured life or death crisis is resolved ten minutes later), all of which we've seen many times. Yet, perhaps the constancy of the repetition embedded in a glamorous façade is what is so soothingly addictive, especially in these most distressing times of pandemic fatigue, war, and cut-throat politics, where diversion can act as a mental health day.


'Kinema' People

It's 1928, and the movie chimes with the wedding of former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), illegitimate, now-affluent daughter of Maud, Lady Bagshaw. Their romance blossomed in the previous film.

Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith in 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'
Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith in 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'  (Source: Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

The film is divided into two sections. Strand one is a continental culture clash comedy when Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) announces she has inherited a villa in the South of France, on the Riviera, from a now-dead marquis, with whom she may or may not have had a love affair prior to her marriage.

The marquis's son (Jonathan Zaccai) and his bitter mother (Nathalie Baye) have invited the Granthams to the villa, where they will receive a warm welcome as they try to unravel the mystery of this generous gift, though the findings could raise questions about Lord Grantham's family paternity.

Meanwhile, strand two is introduced when Lord Grantham receives a tantalizing phone call from the British Lion film company wanting to set their latest silent film, a preposterous yarn called "The Gambler," at Downton Abbey. Lord Grantham is repulsed by the idea of having to deal with "kinema" people, but Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), now more or less in charge of Downton, agrees to the proposal, as the huge fee being paid will fix the home's leaking roof. The servants are excited at the prospect of meeting and pampering movie stars.

The film's director (Hugh Dancy) takes a shine to the married Lady Mary (though her husband, traveling the world for excitement and business, is absent from the film, probably having read the script and bolted) with charming leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) intrigued with lonely gay butler Barrows (Robert James-Collier), and gorgeous platinum-blond leading lady Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), rude to everyone and fearful about her Cockney-like working-class accent, portending dim future career prospects now that films talk.

During mid-production, the studio threatens to shut the set down because no one wants to watch silent films anymore, but Mary devises an ingenious solution to transform "The Gambler" into a talking picture with the help of incipient screenwriter Molesley (Kevin Doyle).

There is one delicious scene when the servants are used as extras and get to reverse their usual roles. If this whole scenario sounds familiar, it's because it's a direct rip-off of "Singin' in the Rain" (minus the songs).

Regardless, the two major plot strands are never brought together. But all the myriad bite-sized story lines are swiftly resolved into tidy endings. The film concludes tearjerkingly with a funeral. If you saw the first film, you will know who dies.

Maggie Smith, relishing her delectably cantankerous demeanor, is still given the best acerbic retorts, delivered with her usual sass and feistiness (i.e. "Do I look as if I'd turn down a villa in the South of France?," "I'd rather eat pebbles (than watch a movie)"), plus one of the all-time great exit lines.

Overall, the film is crammed with countless subplots and stilted dialog (unbelievably, the ever-scowling retired butler Carson [Jim Carter] delivers a "King Lear" soliloquy) spread across convoluted, choppy scenes often just a few minutes long. At one point, there were so many babies and children mentioned, it felt like one had been transported to a "Call the Midwife" episode.

Dominic West as Guy Dexter and Robert James Collier as Thomas Barrow in a scene from "Downton Abbey: A New Era."
Dominic West as Guy Dexter and Robert James Collier as Thomas Barrow in a scene from "Downton Abbey: A New Era."  

Gay Vague
For LGBTQ viewers, the incidents involving ex-footman Barrows are especially frustrating. Audiences have watched as Barrows morphed from villain to suicidal gay victim to hopeless romantic seeking a futile long-term relationship. The first movie gave him some gumption, not to mention romance, but in this film you could easily miss whether Guy is suggesting a dalliance, because vagueness abounds and there is zero sexual tension among these two very straight actors.

Creator Julian Fellowes has always had problems developing queer characters throughout his oeuvre, including the current "Gilded Age" HBO Max series. Here, Barrows doesn't even rate a kiss for all his travails and willingness to relocate to the other side of the planet.

But at least Barrows has some screen time, as opposed to many of the other characters, who barely have anything to do, such as Samantha Bond, Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, and Nathalie Baye — all brilliant actors reduced to lackluster blink-and-you-will-miss-them cameos. One only hopes they were well paid for their artistic sacrifices.

Why do we give a damn about these over-privileged, rich white people? Perhaps the best answer is given by Moseley when asked why he cares about the movie being made at Downton. "Hollywood is the ultimate dream factory, and I need dreams as much as the next man."

Downton is nonsensical fantasy historical revisionism, where wealthy people supposedly exercised paternal concern about their underpaid, overworked domestics, who, in return, gave them stellar loyal service and their heart's devotion, instead of them spitting in their soup at the injustice of that social caste system.

But heck, there are dazzling shots of Highclere Castle, with sunny Cote d'Azur never looking more inviting, gorgeous roaring twenties costumes and hairstyles, and jazzy music inviting you to dance the Charleston.

Honestly, the entire enterprise could easily have been downsized into a two-part PBS holiday special, but despite this and all Downton's other sins, we still love these characters (the series' chief asset) and only want the best for them.

But having tied up all (and we do mean all) the remaining loose ends of Downton's denizens, Baron Fellowes should quit before the series becomes a parody of itself and ripe for camp (e.g., Lady Mary becoming a government spy to root out upper-class English fascists?). Better he spend his time fixing and improving the very mediocre "Gilded Age" for its upcoming second season.

Ultimately, the film is posh-porn, comfort food,and breezy escapism, the Masterpiece equivalent of a "Mamma Mia," Mediterranean summer vacation (absent the Abba songs), a more cultured alternative to the next Marvel superhero saga (i.e. "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness").

"Downton Abbey: A New Era" is optimistic, sentimental, entertaining fluff tied up with a bow of pseudo-sophistication. Enjoy, but please don't dare take any of it seriously.

'Downton Abbey: A New Era' opens locally at several cinemas on May 18. www.focusfeatures.com


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