Downton Abbey, the film franchise, has some singular traits (they’re not all problems); most of them related to it being an immediate sequel to a television show, but also the television show’s viewer demographics. Thanks to those demographics, A New Era can get away with a slightly disingenuous subtitle—it’s more of a “sure, maybe, come next to see if anything’s changed”—and lazy title design. When the end credits come up, they’ve got a title card any capable intern wouldn’t have shipped, but it doesn’t matter. Another of the franchise’s traits is the low bar they have to clear. The film’s got a cast of thirty capable actors; so long as Julian Fellowes’s script keeps their material interesting and the plotting straightforward, New Era can never be particularly bad.
Obviously, relying on competent writing and acting will limit its potential as well, which doesn’t even get into whether or not A New Era’s going to be comprehensible to viewers who haven’t seen the previous sixty hours of content. Spoiler, it’s not. Thanks to the acting, some of Fellowes’s callbacks would probably work without context, but New Era’s not interested in being a jumping-on point.
New Era takes place a year after the last film and has a profoundly requisite morbid plot line. The previous film set up Maggie Smith’s character, the family matriarch, not returning for the next film (this film). Because Smith was eighty-five and they didn’t want to recast if she passed away before the next movie. So, already unpleasant. Well, she didn’t pass away, so they’ve got an entire subplot about her waiting around to die. It “works,” with Smith getting in some great scenes, but it’s… a lot. They handle it well, probably franchise trailblazing; it’s just inherently somber, the character and the actor’s fate so entwined.
Of course, Smith’s not the only actor they’ve got to worry about aging. There are a couple dozen others the film’s tracking. The opening titles, listing actor after actor (in alphabetical order), play over a montage—Allen Leech is marrying Tuppence Middleton, following up on their romance from the previous movie. The montage skips around the cast, establishing who’s got a baby now, who doesn’t, who’s married, and who still isn’t. A New Era feels like two episodes of the show smooshed together, with a very special conclusion tacked on to the end; the opening, however, feels like the end of another episode, one we haven’t seen.
The film’s going to take a while to get going, too, checking in and establishing the various subplots—principally, assistant cook Sophie McShera’s complicated home life, which involves her and her husband Michael Fox living with her dead first husband’s father, Paul Copley. Their subplot is the only one entirely disengaged from the rest of the film’s goings-on. Penelope Wilton’s got a tiny subplot where she’s going through Smith’s estate to get it ready for her passing, but nothing of her own; Elizabeth McGovern’s subplot (the only ill-advised one in the film) starts tacked on to Wilton’s before branching out in the late second act. Everything’s wrapped up together, which Fellowes’s script handles with startling ease.
Everything else has to do with or spins out of one of the main plots. First, there’s Smith inheriting a French villa; she can’t make the trip to meet with the angry soon-to-be-former owners, Jonathan Zaccaï and Nathalie Baye, so a large contingent on the regular cast will go on that mission in her stead. Then, at the Abbey itself, persistent money problems have led Michelle Dockery to rent the property to a film production crew led by director Hugh Dancy. New Era dabbles with the two layers of filmmaking, the film within a film and New Era itself, but it’s like Fellowes knew director Curtis wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But there are a couple excellent moments where one informs the other.
The French away team is Hugh Bonneville, McGovern, Leech, Middleton, Laura Carmichael, Harry Hadden-Paton, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Raquel Cassidy, and Imelda Staunton. So ten regular cast, plus Zaccaï and Baye. Zaccaï’s the son of the recently deceased, who’s convinced there’s some story behind why his dad left the villa to Smith, who knew his father for a week decades before. Baye’s the justifiably unhappy about it widow. Their arc will be the film’s most complex because they’re not main cast, so they can’t get too much time, but Fellowes isn’t going to half-ass it either.
There are some excellent comedic scenes for Carter, the proper English butler literally drafted for the mission (by wife Phyllis Logan to get him out of the estate for the film crew), with some lovely character moments for everyone else. The trip provides the opportunity for the downstairs characters—Carter, Coyle, Cassidy—to interact outside the norms, in addition to some mixing with the upstairs cast. It’s okay but dramatically inert; it’s all set up for Bonneville’s understated aristocrat fretting arc and McGovern’s subplot.
The filming at Downton plot is the clear A plot, particularly since it gets the special guest stars—Dancy, Dominic West, and Laura Haddock. Again, Dancy’s the director, West and Haddock are his stars; they’re making a silent movie just when sound is taking the cinema by storm. Dockery and Dancy quickly become partners, first logistically, then more conceptually, as Dockery gets involved in filmmaking. She won’t be the only one—lovable Kevin Doyle will have a significant part in the production as well. Meanwhile, West shows what appears to be a sincere interest in Robert James-Collier, whose boyfriend from the last movie married a woman for cover in between films.
The moviemaking subplot also has starstruck McShera and Joanne Froggatt learning screen idol Haddock’s a lot more complicated in real life—though West’s nice to everyone; it’s a fantastic performance and just what the film needs to offset Haddock’s additional drama (she’s got a Cockney accent, which doesn’t match her glamorous screen persona) and Dancy mooning over Dockery.
Dockery’s got offscreen husband troubles; another problem with doing a movie sequel to your TV show… what if you can’t get all the actors you need back?
The film production plot works out well, resolving just in time for the film’s big swing finale.
At various points throughout the film, one has to wonder how New Era would play if director Curtis were concerned with anything but aggrandizing a TV show for the big screen. The film takes every advantage of its wide, Panavision aspect ratio, which would be more groundbreaking if TV shows (including “Downton Abbey”) weren’t already widescreen. Still, Curtis and cinematographer Andrew Dunn make sure every frame’s chockfull. Doesn’t quite make up for Curtis not having any personality, but he’s got a pragmatic job here.
The two plots even out—partially due to that iffy McGovern subplot—with the finale as the film’s make-or-break. They succeed with it, bringing New Era about as closer to standalone than previously imaginable. It’s a particular accomplishment for the actors, who bring the gravitas.
I do hope they figure out a better subtitle for the next entry.
But, otherwise, Downton—thanks to Fellowes and the cast—remains in fine shape.