At the start of Downton Abbey: A New Era we are given a quick recap of what’s what and who’s who by actor Kevin Doyle (who plays the bumbling Moseley), reminding us what the heck has gone on most recently with our favorite characters from the beloved Masterpiece Theater series. This is extremely helpful as (doing a quick glance at the credits) there are no less than 31 recognizable characters that are given screen time this time around, some only given a line or two. As we are reminded, some upstairs and downstairs couples paired up (never crossing class lines, mind you, unless you are that nice chauffeur-turned-widowed-nobleman Tom Branson), others are still longing, some have gotten hitched, and children are still conveniently swept offscreen, apparently raising themselves like wolves. In other words, things are humming along at Downton as usual… Until….!
First, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, always the scene-stealer) has just been bequeathed a villa in the South of France. Très mystérieux! The dead man’s longtime wife is none too pleased, and the rest of the Crawleys are intrigued and bemused by a perhaps romantic secret 60 years past in the life of their quippy matriarch. Half the house (family plus help) packs up, boards a fancy yacht, and takes a holiday to check it out.
Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), now the lady of the house (whose car-racer husband from the last film is the only character MIA), has pondered and accepted an intriguing query from none other than a Hollywood film studio. They’d like to film their latest picture at Downton, and are willing to offer a tidy sum for the privilege. Sensible Mary is a modern woman who knows a good deal when she sees one, tradition be damned. After all, that leaky roof isn’t going to pay for itself to get fixed! Next thing you know, Downton, upstairs and downstairs, is all aflutter with the glamour and fuss of the arriving movie stars (Dominic West and Laura Haddock), handsome director (Hugh Dancy), and the cacophony of the film crew.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is an odd duck of a “film” itself. Despite ticking off all the boxes for fans, as a movie it is strangely rushed and kind of sloppy. For instance, it only takes moments for the casual viewer to notice how strangely tan Lord Gratham (Hugh Bonneville) is at the start of the film in England. Considering this is the late 1920s, I’m sure that those that enjoy a life of opulent leisure like the Crawleys don’t want to have the leathery orange look of a hired hand, but it gets even stranger when you notice the retired butler Carson with a similar healthy tan on his face. (Honestly, as the proud servant of the house, he would probably be appalled to be confused for a groundskeeper with such a glow!) Once the story gets rolling, the only explanation is that they shot the movie out of sequence and the DP or makeup simply wasn’t paying attention. Still, it is jarring enough, continuity-wise, that the YouTube comments on the trailer are having a field day with Bonneville’s swarthy look.
I also get the feeling that this story clocked in initially at Marvel-length. Clearly, if this ground was covered in the TV series we would have had at least three or four episodes for the stories to breathe. Instead, the cuts between scenes are so short and fast, you almost wonder if the editor was told to trim as close as possible, shaving every possible second without actually removing dialogue. Popular characters like Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), for instance, are given just enough screen time to check them off a list so that fans won’t notice them missing. Fan favorite Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is luckily given a little more plot that hints at a happier ending for the miserable gay butler, but still, it seems rather abrupt and not very developed. And, probably strangest of all, there are a couple of major plot points that would have been milked for sobs on the series, but are presented almost passing thoughts here.
But, hey, I loved Downton Abbey (the show) and continue to be invested in this ever-bloating cast of characters. At it’s best, it’s is a fabulously soapy drama of the Aristocratic Haves, and Those Who Seem to Happily Serve Them. A New Era, for the most part, is light on its feet and charmingly funny, especially the Hollywood-meets-Downton plot. Even as the movie tends to rehash and recycle some well-worn threads (mysterious love affairs, hushed-up illnesses, unrequited crushes), the cast still all seem happy to have the band back together. Fans will surely pick up on this on-screen joy, and will be be delighted that the title (and more) promises (?) “a new era” for these characters. We may not be done with the Crawleys and Downton Abbey, yet!