“Downton Abbey: A New Era”: Travels, Talkies, and Other Traumas

Downton Abbey A New Era!

One of our local theaters showed this in Dolby Cinema with perfect picture and volume-17 sound. Oh, how the Dowager Countess would judge them.

They’re back! Lord and Lady Grantham! The Dowager Countess! Lady Mary! Edith! Cousin Isobel! Tom Branson! Mr. and Mrs. Carson! Mr. and Mrs. Bates! Thomas! Mrs. Patmore! Daisy! Andy! Mr. Molesley! Miss Baxter! Mrs. Denker! Bertie! Lord Merton! Lucy! Sybbie! George! Marigold! Lady Rosamund! Mr. Mason! Dr. Clarkson! Mr. Murray! Dolores Umbridge! The ol’ gang’s back together again for Downton Abbey: A New Era, the latest chapter in Julian Fellowes’ beloved historical drama about waning British affluence, surviving well past the six-seasons-and-a-movie threshold for true pop culture immortality.

That’s 29 characters whose original actors returned for this shindig. And yes, I double-checked: three of their tiny offspring have indeed been played by the same moppets since season 5. Triple bonus points if you recognize all 29 without cheating — as I did to peg Lady Violet’s lawyer — but then you’re docked half those points if we catch you complaining that the MCU has gotten just too darn huge to keep track of.

My wife Anne and I have seen every episode, film, and special to date, plus the traveling costume exhibit. Whenever I forget a character or sundry tidbits of historical relevance, she’s there to remind me and provide extemporaneous speeches expounding on the issues brought forth by the various trials and tribulations of the Grantham and Crawley families. We were among the youngest viewers at our screening, which attracted more senior citizens to the theater than anything else I’ve left the house to watch over the past two years. I imagine that demographic was thinking: if this family could survive World War I and the Spanish flu, then we too can put on our stiffest upper lips and show solidarity with their latest formal hi-jinks.

Previously on Downton Abbey: everybody was very happy and nobody died and it was basically genteel fan-service for PBS Viewers Like You who’d assumed the show was over and there was nothing to be done but go back to Upstairs Downstairs reruns. But how does one keep such a persistent show fresh, or whatever the UK TV equivalent of “fresh” is? As with many ensemble series firmly rooted in a specific locale (like, say, Gilligan’s Island), the two easiest answers are either (a) new people have to come visit your locale, or (b) Our Heroes have to travel. The prior, un-subtitled film brought the King and Queen to the estate; the most predictable next step would’ve been to send the Granthams to Hawaii or a World’s Fair. Rather than choose, Fellowes and director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) have it both ways and, in modern terms, split the party. Things were going so well for the family in 1928 that neither storyline needs the full team assembled.

The slightly less whimsical arc first: the Granthams are going to France! Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) is reminded that a Frenchman she once knew decades ago wasn’t kidding when he told her he was transferring ownership of am entire beautiful French villa to her, just because he could. Now he’s dead, his survivors are getting his affairs in order, and his son/executor (Jonathan Zaccaï, who was King Philip in Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood) has confirmed that, yes, really, the villa is hers, please come take possession before the bitter widow (Nathalie Baye, DiCaprio’s mom in Catch Me If You Can) sics a French legal team on her. The 300-year-old Lady Violet, who is still mindful of the previous film’s terminal diagnosis that sure is taking its sweet time lingering, is too old and snarky to make the trip, so it’s up to Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), plus a few extra cast members desperate for screen time, to come meet the vacating occupants on her behalf, inspect the property, and confirm that, yes, Ma-ma is now slightly richer in her final days.

But a question lingers: exactly why did the guy give her an entire villa? We learn his widow and his son will be fine: it’s merely one among their many holdings. The widow snarls at them anyway on principle, the principle being that rich folks hate surprise inheritors with secret connections to their loved ones. But what did Violet mean to him? What secrets might they have kept? And why is the son being so darn hospitable to Robert in particular? Much stunned gossip ensues, because of course asking Violet for answers outright, while potentially saving themselves days of fussing and fretting, would be très gauche.

Meanwhile back home: Hollywood has come to Downton! Silent-era filmmakers now have the technology and means to shoot in exotic locations faraway from boring sound stages, and some location manager racked up some of the first known frequent-flyer miles to discover Downton’s lush interiors would make a cool movie setting, thus presaging The Rules of the Game but minus the scathing irony. Every cast member over 60 is shocked and appalled at the thought of Downton sinking to a new low, especially Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who always thought the 20th century was a terrible idea. The younger and more practical Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who’s rather fickle about which stodgy traditions she keeps or discards, tricks Carson into joining the French-dispatched and she welcomes the film crew inside. As previously established, Downton’s funds aren’t nearly as unlimited as they used to be, and the fee they’re offering would handily cover the cost of a new roof. It’s a better financial move than downsizing again, or selling some of their artworks, which would be très gauche.

Enter the film crew led by director Jack Barber (Hannibal star Hugh Dancy), whose latest production The Gambler will surely make back its costs. He’s aided and abetted at two leading actors of the time, played by Dominic West from The Wire and Laura Haddock (Star-Lord’s mom), whose nonverbal motions can claim a few fans. One slight hitch: mere moments into filming, the studio calls and pulls the plug. Suddenly and without warning, cinematic tastemakers have decided silence is out and sound is in. The wild success of The Jazz Singer has opened a portal into a whole new world, and, as the film tells us, the horror flick The Terror has become the first talkie to open in British theaters, with sold-out showings all around. Just like that, The Gambler is obsolete, the project is over, the stars’ careers are in jeopardy, and it’s a good thing Mary wasn’t already pricing shingle swatches.

Or…can something be done? What if they take a new approach? What if Barber and company (*gasp*) change with the times? Can they pull it off? And how many of our favorite cast members will pitch in to help save the day? And if they do save the day, will heroic film preservationist Martin Scorsese be able and willing to rescue and remaster all their hard work 90 years in the future?

As you might’ve guessed before you began reading this entry, A New Era is not a simple jumping-on point for new viewers. You’re certainly welcome to try, but I recommend inviting a fan to watch along with you. Also, wait till it comes to home video so their incessant Downtonsplaining doesn’t annoy nearby strangers. Some light filmic touches might distract from the usual TV feel — the occasional long tracking shots, the fancy switches to and from silent film stick in old-fashioned aspect ratio — all of which serve Fellowes’ same old Moral of the Story — to wit: The Times They Were A-Changing.

And yet in most ways that count, the show does not. As hardcore Downton fans can already guess, your latest comfort-viewing installment goes exactly as it ever has and ever will. Not everyone gets a lot of face time, but standouts include the aforementioned Bonneville, facing far more emotional seesawing than ever; Lady Mary, front and center as always yet exploring a fun new task; Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) the hapless footman-turned-schoolteacher who might be ready for more turns; the never-ending saga of the perpetually unrequited Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who might or might not break that heartsick cycle of his at last; and of course Dame Maggie Smith as the eminently matchless MVP, regardless of how long they drag out the Countess’ last days.

Fair warning, though: the results here guarantee not all 29 characters will be returning for the next one, should the studio grant it. The show’s bloodbath days seem far in the past, but A New Era brings a few permanent consequences that will affect future trajectories for certain. As relief from the heavier moments, one of those serious developments happens to include The Best Line in the Film, possibly among the greatest in the show’s history. You’ll know it when you hear it, and you simply will not know how to react.

If you’re among those who lament the show’s softening with these follow-up tales, don’t forget: the Great Depression is coming! Or “The Slump” in their language! Far be it from me to hew too closely to solely American terms, which would be très gauche.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Look, I an not naming all the other longtime costars. It’s far easier to list who didn’t return this time. Setting aside those folks who exited long ago, the only major absentee of recent vintage is Matthew Goode, who was too busy filming The Offer for Paramount+ to show up for a cameo as Mary’s current husband Henry. He’s explained away in a couple of quick lines, but his ongoing existence directly affects one subplot. I’m not sure where they would’ve fit him in anyway, except maybe to have him frown at anyone who flirts with Mary.

You might not recognize Alex Macqueen from Black Mirror‘s traumatizing first episode, who enters the fray late as a sound engineer with precise knowledge of his state-of-the-art recording equipment (such as it was), who’s extremely strict with enforcing his needs to make it all work to his exacting specifications, not unlike how Fellowes responds toward any actors who dare deviate from his written words.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Downton Abbey: A New Era end credits, though a trio of elderly women a row ahead of us pointed and gabbed rather curiously when they noticed the COVID-19 management roster, which is increasingly becoming a standard section in every film’s end credits. Welcome to a new era, ladies.

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