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Film Review: ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ Proves the Magic is Gone

Hugh Bonneville stars as Robert Grantham and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Before the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes reassured its loyal audience, that Adolph Hitler and WWII would not feature in its plot. The 2019 film focused on a Royal visit giving all the characters just enough to do to be worth it. Now the second film appears to be stuck— not wanting to move an inch into a New Era. For a series that began with the sinking of the Titanic its second foray into film is a bore an iceberg couldn’t help. 

To establish what has transpired in the Downton universe the series took place from 1912-1926. The first films royal visit took place in 1927. And, A New Era takes place just one year later in 1928. Obviously, the film is trying to avoid any external conflict that gave the series a foot in the real world even if the butler Carson (Jim Carter) was busy educating us on what spoon to use and when.

The films main purpose appears to be to give every character not afforded a happy ending in either the series or the first film their moment. Relegating characters like Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), or Banes (Brendan Coyle) Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) to nothing more than window dressing—important enough to be missed not important enough to have anything to really do. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era begins with the wedding of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) the latter from the first film. The wedding gives Fellowes nothing more than an excuse to get the cast back together again. The story then breaks into two parts. The first a meta moment as Downton needing money and with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) at the helm a film will be shot giving the Crawley’s the necessary funds to repair the roof. Mary’s husband Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is noticeably missing and excused by being at a race. It’s probable that Goode could not fit this into his busy schedule. This allows newcomer Hugh Dancy, the charismatic director Jack Barber to flirt with the lonely Mary.  When the film becomes a talkie Mary agrees to lends her voice to the film when its star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) isn’t up to be heard and seen. Another notable newcomer Dominic West who plays the leading man Guy Dexter has nothing to do but give of all characters Barrow (Robert James-Collier) his happy ending.

It was a nice moment for the downstairs staff getting to be extras in the film and pretend to be the upstairs folks even if it is brief. Even Molesley (Kevin Doyle) finds a surprising new job that shouldn’t be spoiled giving another character a chance to walk off happily into the sunset. Ultimately this storyline with Lady Mary at the center was probably invented as a way to keep Dockery at the center of the film as she also had the disaster of a limited series Anatomy of a Scandal come out this year. Without Dockery there would be no film but what once made Lady Mary compelling is long gone— she’s had two husbands, an affair, and an ex-fiancé in the series and that’s just scratching the surface. But in the film dubbing an actress’s voice isn’t the same as what made the character in the series so compelling.

The rest of the Crawley’s and Carson are off to the South of France as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) had inherited a villa. There Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are greeted by the new Marquis de Montmirai (Jonathan Zaccai) and his mother, Madame Montmirail (Nathalie Bayer). The Marquis believes that since Violet’s visit took place in 1864 and he was born in 1865 that they’re half-brothers. This plot point exists to give Bonneville nothing more to do than act as a blowhard—of course he’s his father’s son. Cora has a health scare that lasts all of twenty minutes which gives Robert and Cora again the chance to profess their love for one another. Bonneville’s appearance throughout the film is noticeably distracting his deep tan gives him the look of someone who was on an exotic vacation before filming even began. This portion of the film does have one moment of levity when Carson is assisted by Maud (Imelda Staunton) in selecting a hat and the shopkeeper mistakes the duo as husband and wife. Its adorable the knowing look Carter and his real-life wife Staunton give each other that almost makes this jaunt worth it. Maybe Carter could appear opposite his wife (who will portray Queen Elizabeth II) on the next season of The Crown as one of her Prime Ministers.

Regardless of all the distractions of the film it appears to exist for one reason only— spoiler alert — to allow Dowager Countess Violet and the superb Maggie Smith a chance to die onscreen. Her maid Denker (Sue Johnston) loyally looks after her with no interference from her butler Spratt (Jeremy Swift) Swift found his own fairytale ending and Emmy nomination on Ted Lasso.  Smith gives her family a final goodbye and her last memorable line that we will not spoil. The death allows the entire ensemble to gather again and the flag above the Abbey to be lowered. It’s not an unexpected death as estimates of Violet’s age range from on the low-end 100 to the higher end 120. 

Why now? Wouldn’t her death have meant more had it happened in the far superior series? Smith was on a late-career role after appearing in the mega-popular Harry Potter films and found even more success and fans with the Downton series along with winning three Emmys. The series appeared hesitant after season three to kill-off any major character. It’s understandable that Fellowes may have found it hard to quit, Violet and her one-line zingers but this character deserved better. A death in the series would’ve made a lot more sense than at the tail-end of a mediocre second film at best. 

The costumes are beautiful (obviously). The setting and production design are as amazing as ever (duh). But there’s nothing new to say. The 2019, film that took place around a royal visit at least gave viewers a look at some beautiful royal sequences and the technicians a chance to shine. This time around even the appearance seems dull the shine dimming on the Abbey.

Why even make a second film? COVID and lockdown brought new fans to Downton Abbey the series and the first film. It’s easily understandable as audiences were looking for an escape and Downton carried viewers away to a different time— even if the Spanish Flu makes an ugly appearance in the second season. But now the time has come for Fellowes and co. to leave Downton Abbey where it belongs in the past.

SCORE: ★★1/2

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Written by @msamandaspears

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