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‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ gently offers more of the same

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Remember when “Downton Abbey” was EVERYWHERE? It was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, likely one of the last truly quadrant-crossing zeitgeist-seizing TV experiences we’ll see, thanks to the proliferation of streaming services and the audience fragmentation born of an unceasing deluge of content.

In truth, I would have anticipated that “Downton” was done, having realized the six-seasons-and-a-movie dream. You’d think I would have learned – content is king, and this is some valuable IP we’re talking about here. It was inevitable that there would be more.

Thus, we get “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes. Let’s be clear from the get-go: no one here is the least bit interested in upending the apple cart. The folks involved – both behind the camera and in front of it – know precisely what is expected of them and they have every intention of delivering just that. There’s nothing new or challenging about this iteration. It’s pure comfort food for the PBS set.

And that’s perfectly OK. The filmmakers know what they are doing and they are unashamed to be doing it. This is low-stakes drama in historical dress, with nary a real conflict to be found; oh, there are a few plot drivers, but for the most part, everyone is generally content and has little in the way of actual problems. But the truth is that sometimes, an audience just want to look at people with fancy outfits and/or charming accents living in a giant house.

It's a different kind of drama (such as it is) this time around. “A New Era” is essentially split into two parts, with the film shifting back and forth between the plots more or less at will – there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind the moves, but it generally works. It feels like nothing so much as a two-hour-long episode of television, albeit a well-made one featuring a massive cast.

One plot involves the revelation by the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) that she has inherited a villa in the south of France from a long-ago acquaintance, the Marquis de Montmirail, who she hasn’t seen in some 50 years. She announces that she will leave the property to her great-granddaughter Sybbie. the new Marquis invites the Countess to visit, but she isn’t well enough to travel. Hence, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) goes in her stead, along with a retinue that includes his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Tom (Allen Leech) and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) Branson – parents to Sybbie. Also on the trip are Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her husband Bertie (Harry Haddon-Patton), along with assorted servants, including the imperious Mr. Carson (Jim Carter).

Meanwhile, back at Downton Abbey, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has talked her father Lord Grantham into allowing the house to be used for a film production; the money would pay for some much-needed repairs. The film – a silent picture titled “The Gambler” – will be directed by Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) and feature two massive stars in Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). The remaining servants are thrilled to be in the presence of such stars, though while both Barber and Dexter prove amiable, Dalgleish’s diva attitude rubs many the wrong way.

Back and forth we bounce. In France, we’re led to wonder about the specifics of the relationship between the Countess and the Marquis – particularly when the new Marquis expresses some potentially scandalous thoughts on the subject. Back at Downton, “The Gambler” is on the verge of being cancelled until the decision is made to pivot to making a talkie, but that presents its own set of obstacles.

And all the while, various people want to be romantically involved with other people, but various circumstances large and small present complications. There are some health scares and some questions about fidelity and whatnot, but ultimately, the problems that most of these people have aren’t really problems at all. Which is kind of the point, really.

As I noted when I reviewed the first “Downton Abbey” film, I never watched the TV show, so I don’t have nearly the relationship with these characters that most audience members do. Part of my pleasant experience with that first film was the fact that I didn’t need more than general pop cultural context to enjoy it. So it is with “A New Era” – my knowledge of this vast ensemble is, if anything, even more fractured and wanting than it was that last time around, yet I was still able to engage with the story in an entertaining way. Did I miss some subtle nuances here and there? Most likely, but I still had a good time – the film proved quite welcoming, even to those of us who might be lacking in knowledge of the show’s history.

It is the same mannered delicacy that we saw in the first film and – I’m told – in the series before that. This is the movie version of a cozy blanket and a warm cup of tea. There’s nothing surprising about what you’ll see here. The adherence to formula is unwavering, with the filmmakers dedicated to giving their audience precisely what they expect … and it’s the correct call.

Trying to separate out performances from such an enormous ensemble is frankly foolish, particularly when you’ve got a cast this stacked. Bonneville and Dockery and of course Smith are highlights from the old guard; among the newcomers, Dancy, West and Haddock are standouts. But the truth is that EVERYONE is strong, which is a huge part of why the film works as well as it does, even for those of us with limited foreknowledge. Every person here is able to embody the richness of their character, no matter how much or how little actual screentime they get. It’s impressive.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a fine film, the sort of quiet escapism that we could all use a little of these days. It’s not challenging or groundbreaking, but fans of the franchise will be more than satisfied.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 09:59

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