After being released overseas a few weeks ago, Downton Abbey returns to the big screen in North America with the sequel film A New Era. At this point, if you’re not a fan of the upstairs/downstairs story set at the titular Downton Abbey, home of the Crawley family in the early 20th century, then this latest film will do little to change your mind. It’s very much more Downton, which is exactly what fans of the TV series would want. That said, I would say that A New Era is actually an improvement upon the previous film.
A New Era is set a year after the previous film, which saw the Monarchy come to the Abbey. This time around, the central plot is split in two, as the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is given a villa in the South of France from an old flame over sixty years ago. The family head over to this new piece of real estate to uncover why the luxury villa was given to her considering they had only known each other for a few days.
At the same time, a film production company comes knocking at Downton, inquiring about using the estate as a filming location for the silent film The Gambler. Characters like Jim Carter’s Carson, the former butler of the house, resents the idea so much he almost blows a gasket thinking about those inferior actor types running loose on the house. Unfortunately, as this is 1928, silent films just aren’t profitable anymore, as evidenced by The Terror being completely sold out at the local theatre, and production on the film is threatened until Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) suggests that the production pivot to a talkie and reappropriate earlier footage.
Nearly everyone in the ensemble cast gets a moment, while the movie is carried by more central characters and new additions played by Dominic West, Laura Haddock and Hugh Dancy. The first film, while grandiose, felt a little at odds with the central theme of the show’s six seasons, which is that the lavish lifestyle of nobility is starting to fade away in the 20th century and that downsizing and accepting change must happen in order to survive. A visit from the King and Queen quickly pivoted things back into the lavish spectacle. And while A New Era is still about spectacle, it feels tuned into the time and theme of the show’s progress. The only reason the Crawley family agrees to allow the production to film at Downton, for example, is to use the money to repair the leaky roof. The villa is being looked into for the sake of Branson’s (Allen Leech) child, who doesn’t share the same privileges as her siblings, while also unearthing the mystery of the will. All this lends itself to a story that feels more relatable and earnest, versus the “let’s look nice for the royals” from the last film.
For those who enjoy the behind the scenes aspect of filmmaking, A New Era takes a small peek behind the curtain, showcasing how many moving parts are operating to make a production happen and also showing in more detail the Automated Dialogue Replacement technique, or ADR, which is something every film even today does.
As mentioned, if you like Downton Abbey, you should enjoy A New Era. It resolves a few hanging plot points, has fun with new ones and allows more characters to get involved with the plot than in the previous film (save for poor Mr. Bates, who kinda gets sidelined again). If you’re not a fan of the series, this sequel will do little to win you over, but if you like the comforts of that old familiar, this entry will definitely scratch that itch.