When I first learned I would be reviewing Downton Abbey: A New Era, I realized I couldn’t remember anything that happened in the first movie. At all. I could only remember that I loved it and the fun my friends and I had going to see it. (For the record, the 2019 movie involved the Crawley family getting ready for a visit from the Queen). Even when I think about the series, which ran on PBS from 2011-2016, the minutiae of the plot details are sketchy in my memory. I remember the broad strokes (The deaths! The romances! The Dowager Countess’ pithy one-liners!) but the intricacies of the storylines are a hazy, costume-filled memory. That’s the crux of the success of Downton Abbey. It doesn’t really matter what these characters do. It’s just a pleasure to spend time with them. Will you enjoy a A New Era even if you’ve never seen a single second of Downton Abbey? As the Crawleys themselves might say, “I’d rather think so.” But this is a movie for the fans—almost a gift, really. The last two-plus years have been a lot for everyone, and to escape to late 1920s England and France in all its splendor is a delight.
All the things we adore about Downton are still there. The lackadaisical pacing that invites viewers in. The Dowager Countess’ delightful barbs. The Upstairs Downstairs shenanigans. Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) rat-a-tat sibling rivalry. (When Edith remarks that going back to work will give her an opportunity to use her brain again, Mary replies, “Let’s hope it’s still there.”) The Crawleys and their staff still make up a well-coiffed, well-dressed and well-executed soap opera. What a treat to get to hang out with them for another two hours.
The music and sweeping aerial photography immediately transport you to a different era. As the movie begins, Tom (Allen Leech) and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) are getting married, beginning where the movie could have ended. “I love you in a way I thought I’d never love again,” Tom tells her. Swoon! Viewers have been through a lot with Tom, and to see him so happy is quite satisfying.
As the endless promotions have already told you, the Dowager Countess Violet Grantham (the incomparable Maggie Smith) has inherited a villa in the South of France from the late Marquis de Montmirail, a man she met 60 years ago. She wants to leave the villa to Tom’s daughter Sybbie (Fifi Hart). Violet’s inheritance is not going over well with the Marquis’ widow Madame de Montmirail (Nathalie Baye). When Violet is questioned on whether she should accept the villa, she intones, as only the Dowager Countess can, “Do I look as if I’d turn down a villa in the South of France?”
While Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), Edith and her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) set off for the Riviera, Mary is left in charge of a film crew coming to shoot a movie at Downton. The very idea horrifies Robert and Mr. Carson but the ever-practical Mary knows the estate could use the influx of funds. The movie is directed by the charming Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) and stars Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) and Guy Dexter (Dominic West, perfectly cast as a dashing silent movie star). In a Singing in the Rain-inspired plot, the movie industry is changing: Silent films are out and talkies are in. There’s only one problem: The gorgeous Myrna is best seen and not heard. Who could possibly dub in for Myrna’s voice? I’m not going to tell you but that math isn’t hard on this one.
A New Era is smart enough to not unravel well-loved plot points. No romances are undone. Characters aren’t broken up just so the movie would have something to do. Unlike other sequels and movies based on TV series (looking right at you Sex and the City), the true gift is that these characters remain true to the characters we know and love. Many characters whose twists and turns may have taken center stage during the series are still present, but their major storylines have already been told. So yes, for example, Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are in the movie, but their grand romance and equally grand strife is firmly in their past.
Alas, Matthew Goode’s Henry Talbot isn’t in the movie. (Goode was busy filming his Paramount+ series The Offer and, having seen both, I’m not so sure Goode made the right choice.) Goode was barely in the first movie and that fact that Mary’s husband’s absence can consistently be explained by talking about Henry’s love of cars is kind of comical. It also kicks off a storyline for Mary that provides a poignant parallel to her grandmother’s arc. Some characters, however, have stories that need closure. Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) is a gay man at a time when that is not only not accepted but not even discussed. Barrow finally gets something of a happy ending in A New Era. “I hope you will be as happy as our cruel world allows,” Mary tells him.
A New Era has a lot of fun mocking the movie industry and the French with Mr. Carson and Violet having the best lines. “They’re very French, the French, aren’t they?” Mr. Carson wonders. “I’d rather earn my living down a mine,” Violet gasps when discussing filmmaking. With the remaining few lingering romances wrapped up and a plot twist I won’t reveal, there’s a sense of closure and finality as A New Era ends. But clearly series creator Julian Fellowes has proven he has more Downton stories to tell. I have to say I would be happy to continue watching for years to come—even if I don’t remember everything.
Director: Simon Curtis
Writer: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Release Date: May 20, 2022
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).