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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Downton Abbey: A New Era



Downton Abbey: A New Era is a welcome reunion with the Crawley family that also shows them at their absolute best. Written by the maestro, Jullian Fellowes, and directed with a rich cinematic eye by Simon Curtis, Downton Abbey: A New Era is grander, warmer, funnier, more emotional, and more resonant than even its delightful 2019 predecessor. A New Era distills every positive aspect of the beloved Downton Abbey TV series and opens up the world on a larger scale than before. Yet A New Era doesn't rest on Downton Abbey's laurels; the sequel indeed brings the Crawley family and their loyal servants into a new phase of their lives. And, as "the modern world comes to Downton," A New Era marks the transition by saying goodbye to its most iconic character, Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).

Lady Violet confessed to her granddaughter, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), that she was dying at the end of the previous Downton Abbey film. But in A New Era, Violet is still enduring, though her time is soon to expire. Fittingly, Violet's "mysterious past" kicks off the story of A New Era as she reveals a former beau, a Marquis, no less, willed her a villa in the South of France decades ago. Violet intends to leave the villa to her great-granddaughter, Sybbie (Fifi Hart), the daughter of the late Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech). But Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), needs to know who this Marquis was and why he left such a lavish gift to his mother. Lord Grantham decides to lead a contingent of the family to the Riviera but it's a solemn mission for him. Robert's discovery that his mother gave birth to him nine months after her supposed fling with the Marquis becomes an existential crisis because, if true, it would mean that Robert was a fraud who was never the Earl of Grantham. Meanwhile, Robert's wife, Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), has a secret of her own: she thinks she might have cancer, which Lady Edith, Marchioness of Hexam (Laura Carmichael), deduces and encourages her mother to tell her father. This all becomes too much for Robert to handle and he breaks down in one of the most remarkably emotional and poignant moments in Downton Abbey's history. Yet it also reaffirmed the genuine love in Robert and Cora's relationship. After really only playing minor roles in the prior Downton Abbey film, A New Era brings Robert and Cora back to center stage, and Bonneville and McGovern beautifully rise to the occasion.

Meanwhile, back at Downton Abbey, the British Lion film company sets up shop to shoot a motion picture in the castle. While most of the family is in the Riviera, Lady Mary is left behind to oversee the filming of The Gambler, directed by Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), who quickly comes to fancy Lady Mary. The servants are agog at getting to wait on glamorous film stars like the beautiful Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) and the charming Guy Dexter (Dominic West), but Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) soon learn Miss Dalgleish is extremely rude because she fears the end of her career. Meanwhile, Dexter takes an immediate liking to Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who realizes the film star is gay like he is. Dexter offers Barrow an opportunity to leave Downton and become his "man" in any way Thomas would like to be, and it's a surprising and hopeful chance at happiness the long-suffering butler rightly takes that pays off Barrow's story from the very start of Downton Abbey. As for Jack and Mary, nothing comes of their flirtation, in spite of the absence of her husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode). Fellowes' writing is clever: Mary's story of being tempted by another man smartly echoes her grandmama's story with the Marquis and sparks Mary's transition to becoming the matriarch of the family when Violet passes away. A New Era also takes the time to remember the dearly departed Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and Fellowes sprinkles in a sly joke about Matthew's "fairy tale good looks" that nods to how Stevens left Downton Abbey to star in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast.

In a film with over thirty major speaking roles, some characters like John Bates (Brendan Coyle), inevitably end up with little to do, but overall, A New Era utilizes its massive cast even better than Downton Abbey 2019 did. Just about everyone gets a moment or two to shine, like Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who is married to Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), getting a fabulous meta-joke where a French shopkeeper mistakes him and Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) to be man and wife, a wink at the fact that Carter and Staunton are married in real life. Tom and Lucy Branson (Tuppence Middleton) marry at the start of A New Era and prove they are a couple that is going to go the distance. Tom also gets to have a stunningly beautiful moment with Lady Violet that speaks to how far Branson has come as a member of the family since his days as the chauffeur who ran off with Lady Sybil. Violet and her best frenemy, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), get to reflect on their years as rivals who genuinely came to respect, admire, and love each other as peers and equals. And perhaps best of all, Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) proves himself to be Downton Abbey's secret comedy weapon once more as the beleaguered schoolteacher discovers his talent for writing "plays for the screen" and saves Barber's film by turning it into a talkie, leading to Molesley embarking on a prosperous new career as a screenwriter. Molesley's proposal to Mrs. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) means yet another wedding among the servants is imminent after Daisy's wedding to Andy (Michael C. Fox). Not to be left behind, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) is about to shack up with Mr. Mason (Paul Copley).

In Downton Abbey 2019, the servants were left behind as the Crawleys danced at the royal ball to end the film but A New Era flips this in a lovely way where, this time, it's the servants who get decked out in their finest to serve as extras in the climactic scene of The Gambler. This is followed by the final farewell to Lady Violet, who dies peacefully surrounded by her loving family, and Maggie Smith even gets to utter one last immortal line: "I can't hear myself die!" Downton Abbey: A New Era ends with a funeral procession that passes the torch from Lady Violet to Lady Mary as "the captain" of Downton Abbey, but the final moments are of a hopeful new beginning as the Crawleys enter the 1930s by welcoming Tom and Lucy's new baby. The final shot is of old Lady Grantham - the eternal symbol of Downton's Edwardian past - lovingly looking over her family, which has endured wars, plague, six incredibly popular seasons of television, and two feature films. Two hours of pure happiness may be as much as our cruel world allows, but Downton Abbey: A New Era is a warm, inviting, and splendid time spent with the Crawleys, who can hopefully continue to reunite with and who will hopefully never change, no matter the era.