Film review: ‘DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’.

Downton Abbey: A New Era.

The TV series Downton Abbey, which depicted the lives of the lords and ladies of the Crawley family who inhabited the titular estate in the 1910’s and 20’s, lay somewhere between sophisticated drama and super-sized soap. Its slightly dubious celebration of privilege and apparent endorsement of class divisions was made palatable by the quality of its production and the performances of its distinguished (mostly) British cast. In 2019, four years after the series wrapped, it made the jump to the big screen with a patchy but mostly satisfying feature film simply called Downton Abbey.  The latest Downton cinema incarnation, A New Era, doesn’t mess with the formula too much but feels more assured and is, for the most part, a more entertaining (if often fluffy) film than its predecessor.

A New Era sees both past and future converge on the Crawley family as matriarch, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) learns that a French aristocrat, with whom she had a brief fling many years ago has left his stunning villa in the south of France to her niece. As the Dowager Countess is not up to travelling, a party, including the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and wife Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) head to the luxurious French estate to explore this potentially salacious mystery. In the Earl’s absence, his daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has agreed to allow a film crew to use Downton as a location for a costume drama featuring silent movie stars Guy Dexter (Domenic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock).

More than the previous film, A New Era exploits the comic potential of the various assaults on the Crawley household’s sense of propriety.  The younger house staff are amusingly giddy at the prospect of meeting and serving movie stars while the older staff and the Crawleys are suspicious and contemptuous of these blow-ins from the grubby world of entertainment.  Amid the wry humour and British class rituals, writer Julian Fellowes and director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin) also weave in some tragic moments and a number of dramatic revelations.

It’s all delivered with the typical Downton splendour with the Abbey, despite leaky a roof, still standing imperiously in the glorious English countryside and the scenes of sun-drenched French coast extremely pleasing to the eyeball.

The film occasionally betrays its TV series roots by flitting about between a few too many romantic subplots, some of which are quite affecting while others don’t particularly resonate.  The need to give such as large ensemble cast at least some screen time starts to feel like a militaristic exercise in logistics and one that might require no-nonsense butler Mr Carson to orchestrate.  Another problem, at least for some viewers, is that a few of the scenarios and dialogue writer Julian Fellowes conjures are a little too twee and take the film from drama to fantasy.

Still, vitally, the characters engage us. Michelle Dockery, whose lady Mary is now de facto head of the household, is particularly good, her delectable posh intonation one of the film’s greatest assets. Jim Carter is also terrific as the unfailingly duty-bound butler Mr Carson. He’s genuinely funny in his refusal to compromise any of his English butler standards in the south of France.  One of Downtown’s best characters, Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, is also in fine form with some classic cutting but affectionate zingers.  There’s an added treat for cinephiles as the filming at Downton occurs just as movies transition to sound, creating an interesting dilemma for the film within a film’s director (Hugh Dancy), his stars – particularly Myrna Dalgleish – and ultimately the Downton household.

This film is mostly for those who enjoyed the TV series, its genteel style and historical setting will be hard to access for those just stumbling on the Downton world and will be unfathomable to those who demand their films contain at least one muscly superhero smashing a city to pieces.  For those who have eagerly awaited this film, though, Downton Abbey: A New Era has all the flaws of the TV series but importantly also has its virtues.

Nick’s rating:     1/2

Genre: Historical drama/ comedy.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Simon Curtis.

Release date: 28th Apr 2022.

Running time: 125 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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