Returning to a lush family estate in the countryside of England sounds like a fairy tale. Yet for six seasons and a movie, Downton Abbey became a reliable place for intrigue and drama in the world of television. The Julian Fellowes series became something of a cultural phenomenon and returned to theaters for the second time earlier this year. The latest film, Downton Abbey: A New Era paves a path forward for the franchise while relying on the steady hands that built the franchise. With plenty of whimsy, and some genuine heartbreak, the latest dispatch from Downton was a welcome sight as audiences return to theaters
The latest Downton adventure kicks off with a marriage. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) ties the knot with Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), giving the family a reason to celebrate. Not long after, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) reveals she’s been left a villa in France by a former admirer. This causes some stir within the Crawley family, prompting Robert (Hugh Bonneville) to lead a group to visit the mysterious location and meet the new Marquis de Montmirail. At the same time, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) agrees to let a motion picture use Downton as their background set. When the director (Hugh Dancy) must convert his silent film into a talkie, Lady Talbot and those remaining at Downton scurry to help the production.
Splitting the story into multiple storylines justifies Downton Abbey: A New Era expanded runtime. While it could be seen as a long episode, director Simon Curtis fills up the screen with new visuals and ideas that would not work on the small screen. The family trip to Italy results in tiny adventures in small Riviera villages. Smaller casts get to explore these locales, which results in a mixture of fan service antics and fun character beats. This particularly benefits Carson (Jim Carter), Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), and Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). At several moments, Curtis injects the film with homages to 1980s and 1990s European period films. Recalling moments of A Room with a View and Enchanted April helps create a lineage between the works, while also embracing the story as a way to simply spend time with these lovely characters.
When we return to Downton, those left behind from the vacation find plenty of work to accomplish. Fellowes and Curtis devote much of this time to tying off story threads for characters that never received a true ending. Dockery gets to explore her new married life and wonders if her life turned out the way she imagined. For once, she genuinely can want for something more, especially considering her husband never appears in the film. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) gets to stand in for the audience and live his dream of writing a Downton-inspired screenplay. Barrow (Robert James-Collier) receives an offer that would tear him away from Downton but would change his life for the better.
While the drama at Downton rarely elevates the story as a film, it does provide insight into changing times and attitudes. As characters flex their newfound agency in new roles, subtle shifts begin to reveal themselves. A more progressive England will still be years away, but this also opens the door for a potential sequel series to till the fertile ground to come. Even if we only revisit Downton in cinemas every few years, Fellowes and his team have successfully opened the door for new ideas and ideologies.
Ultimately, Downton Abbey: A New Era will not sway you to love the franchise. Either you are excited about the latest film in the series, or you have never watched the television darling. It hammers home cute comedic moments. Smith once again gives a riveting performance, and never lets a moment slip through her very capable fingers. A call out to one of cinema’s most beloved films captures some Hollywood pixie dust. Downton Abbey may seem like an oddity in the cultural landscape, but Fellowes and Curtis successfully captivate with their higher budgets and expanded timeline. While it can play like a long episode on occasion, this chapter in the Downton Abbey franchise will strike a chord with millions of fans.
Alan’s Grade: 8/10