Downton Abbey: A New Era

If you aren’t a fan of the television series, there’s no point in seeing this movie.  If you are a fan, A New Era delivers the goods.  All of your favorite characters are on hand once again in a new chapter that is more of a continuation of the main plot line than the previous movie.  The Crowley’s (a.k.a. the poorest rich people you know) need money to fix a leaky roof.  As luck would have it, a director wishes to film a movie on the estate.  Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is all for it, but Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has his priggish qualms about it, as usual.  As (even more) luck would have it, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) has just been left a villa in the south of France from a Marquis she met eons ago.  (Yes, before she was married.)  Mary sends her father and a contingent of her family off to the villa so that she can supervise the production.  Unfortunately, technology catches up with the director, who must shift gears and make a talkie.  Mary thinks they can pull it off, but unfortunately the lead actress sounds like a wench in a pub.  (What movie does that remind you of?)  Meanwhile, in sunny France, Lord Grantham has to confront the idea that his mother had a dalliance out of marriage, making him a bastard!

Like the series and the preceding movie, A New Era delivers what fans have come to expect and appreciate:  impeccable production values, top-notch acting, dollops of melodrama, wonderful costumes and snappy dialog, all set to that iconic orchestral score.  I liked how several of the supporting characters continue to grow in interesting ways, including resident nebbish Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle).  It goes without saying that this movie includes a wedding, a proposal and several professions of love, some expected, some surprising.  In the end, there’s the unexpected departure of a character who’s been around since the beginning, as well as the not-so-unexpected death of a beloved character.  Julian Fellowes, the mastermind behind Downton Abbey, makes it look so effortless.  Regardless, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is still the luckiest chauffeur ever, and he knows it.  Recommended.

I could say that my interest in Downton Abbey came by way of spousal obligation, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  My wife watches plenty of shows on PBS that I haven’t had the slightest interest in watching (Call the Midwife, Grantchester, All Creatures Great and Small, etc.).  Downton Abbey piqued my curiosity because it reminded me of several movies I saw years ago that fall under the “historical English drama” category, specifically Remains of the Day, Howard’s End and Sense and Sensibility. Like those movies, Downton Abbey features top-notch acting, exquisite production design, an enchanting orchestral score, on-location shooting and amazing costume design.  More importantly, the plots that entangle Downton’s wide cast of characters, concerns of class, status, money and marriage, feel directly influenced by those prestige films.  In other words, Downton got my attention because it delivers its period-based melodrama with deliberation, professionalism and panache.  Ironically, the show that it borrows its narrative structure from, namely Upstairs, Downstairs, is a show I’ve never seen.

The original Downton Abbey television series ran from 2010 to 2016, and I enjoyed all 52 episodes.  Even when the show veered off into soap opera territory (the rape of lady’s maid Anna, valet Mr. Bates being tried for murder, the sudden deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s bleeding ulcer, etc.), I still found the show to be breezy and engaging.  So when the television series was followed by a feature film, 2019’s Downton Abbey, of course I saw it.  I honestly can’t remember the plot, other than it being positioned as a stand-alone episode.  I remember enjoying it, which was the same reaction I had to this new film.

The story of Downton Abbey: A New Era concerns itself with two distinct plots.  A movie director has asked permission to film a movie on the estate.  Given how the estate needs income to continue supporting itself, specifically to fix a leaky roof, the offer couldn’t have come at a better time.  Lady Mary (the harmonically droll Michelle Dockery) is solidly in favor of the idea, while her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is not.  As luck would have it, another plot device is introduced that will make it possible for Mary to proceed with her plans without her father’s consternation or interference.

The Lady Violet, a.k.a. The Dowager Countess of Grantham (a reliably saucy Maggie Smith) has received word that a man she met decades ago, the Marquis de Montmirail (what an awesome name), has bequeathed to her a villa in the south of France.  Since Mary will be busy supervising the film crew and Lady Violet’s health makes long-distance travel prohibitive, Lord Grantham will lead a separate brigade of Granthams to the villa to suss out the situation.  If everything is on the level, Violet has asked that the property go to Tom Branson (Alan Leech) and his daughter Sybil.  (I’ll touch on Tom’s incredible good fortune later.)

I didn’t realize it while watching the movie, but it literally makes no sense for the Granthams to keep the villa, lovely as it is.  (And oh my, is it ever.)  It would be far more practical for the Granthams to sell the property as soon as they obtain ownership, funnel the profits into Downton and forget about the film offer altogether.  But doing that would reduce the movie from a runtime of two hours to about five minutes, effectively depriving us of living vicariously through the lives of our favorite nobles (and their servants).

This being a Downton Abbey joint, both plots encounter varying levels of crises.  At home, director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) is faced with shutting down production of his silent movie because everybody wants to see talkies instead.  Mary suggests converting over to sound, which will be fine for leading actor Guy Dexter, given that he’s played by Dominic West.  Unfortunately, leading lady Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) has a commonor’s accent that will sound ridiculous within the context of the movie.  Her career and the movie are certainly finished.  Will Lady Mary and Team Downton be able to save the picture?  (Hint: Singing in the Rain.)

In the sunny south of France, Lord Grantham Tom first must deal with the animosity directed towards them by the late Marquis’s wife, Madame Montmirail (Nathalie Baye).  She wants to contest the will, but her son, the new Marquis (Jonathan Zaccaï) insists on following his father’s wishes.  He’s aware of the timeline for when his father and Lady Violet spent a week together (before she married), and is convinced that Lord Grantham is actually his half-brother.  This possibility rocks Lord Grantham to his core.  Could he actually be (gasp) illegitimate?  Has he been pretending to be a descendant of nobility all these years?

Of the two plotlines, I liked the movie one the best.  A lifelong movie aficionado, I’m a sucker whenever there’s a movie within a movie.  The process, the equipment, the hurlyburly of it all  always fascinates me.  I liked how Mary and several of the supporting characters all pitched in to save the production.  The scenes at the villa were beautiful, but their dramatic impact was minimal.  For a hot minute, Lord Grantham thinks he’s a bastard and his wife is going to die.  Unfortunately, the movie chooses to restore order over having Lord Grantham grapple with the ambiguity over his lineage.  I never thought for a second that Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) would die, but I was hoping that the movie would force Lord Grantham into an existential crisis of sorts.  There was an opportunity there for his character to have an epiphany, to realize that that family is what matters, and not his lineage.  Alas, it was not to be.

Both plotlines are given a dose of mortality to deal with.  Lady Violet is fading fast, and Cora has been feeling poorly and suspects cancer.  Could series creator Julian Fellowes actually kill off two of his strong, female characters in one movie?  Thankfully, the answer is no.  Violet passes away in a touching death scene, something that fans of the series have been anticipating since the last season.  As for Cora, Dr. Clarkson (played with knowing reassurance by David Robb) diagnoses her with pernicious anemia.  When I heard that diagnosis, I was incredulous.  Given how Mrs. Patmore (the wonderfully crusty Lesley Nicol) is always shown making incredible meals for the family, what could Cora possibly be missing from her diet?

A New Era continues the Downton Abbey tradition of steadily pairing-up its unattached characters.  Tom marries his new love Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) in a beautiful ceremony that opens the movie.  Victorian proto-nerd Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) finally proposes to Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy).  Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Andy (Michael Fox), tired of living with her father-in-law, play matchmakers and set him up with Mrs. Patmore.  Even Tomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), Mr. Evil Butler himself, finds a kindred spirit in closeted actor Guy.  He  accepts Guy’s offer to be his personal valet, saying goodbye to Downton for a life that suddenly promises happiness.  I realize that Downton Abbey will always be infused with a bourgeois spirit, but it would be nice if it would occasionally concede that people can actually be happy outside of marriage.  That said, A New Era is decidely chaste affair.  I only remembered two kisses, and they were both shared by Tom and his new wife.

One aspect that I appreciated about Downton Abbey and A New Era is how its characters evolve over time.  In this movie, Mary learns that her entitled airs make her the perfect actress.  Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), previously known as the frumpy middle daughter, has emerged as a late bloomer and looks radiant in this movie.  The movie continues to explore her character’s internal struggle over whether she should be a mother or a journalist.  Mr. Molesley’s transformation from a twitchy butler/footman to screenplay writer was a pleasant surprise.  As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Barrow’s transformation from Evil Butler to someone who finds love is nothing less than astounding.

Speaking of transformations, for someone who started out as a Marxist chauffeur, Tom Branson’s run of good fortune in Downton Abbey has simply been unbelievable.  Sure, he lost his wife (Lady Sybil) shortly after they were married.  As tragic as that event was, he woke up the next day as a member of the Crowley family, and would never want for anything ever again as long as he lived.  To his credit, Tom has always pulled his weight, helping to right the estate’s finances when support from the crown was turned off.  After a trip to America with his daughter, he returned and promptly fell in love with Lucy, who was a maid when he met her.  (Did I mention that she’s incredibly beautiful?)  Naturally, she turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and is the sole heir of her estate.  As if that weren’t enough, Lady Violet bequeaths the villa to Tom’s daughter.  Allen Leech plays him perfectly, a mixture of humility and sheepishness.  Luck, thy name is Tom Branson.  Embarrassment of riches, indeed!

As the subtitle of the movie intones, Downton Abbey has entered a new era with the death of Maggie Smith’s character.  Her portrayal of Lady Violet was priceless, and her verbal repartee with Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) was always one of the highlights of the show.  A New Era effectively marks Lady Mary’s ascendancy to the head of the Crowley clan.  She’s the fulcrum of the action in this movie, and if they make another one, I anticipate her role becoming even more prominent.  Her character is the only one who’s central question is left unanswered at the end of the movie: is her marriage to Tom on steady ground?  Michelle Dockery’s performance as Mary has always been fun to watch, filled with haughty sarcasm befitting a Royal.  I’m surprised that Dockery hasn’t found the same level of success with her other projects.  I suspect she’s leery of being relegated to period pieces like Keira Knightley, and is deliberately choosing modern material to avoid being typecast.  Her turn as a barrister in Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal was the right idea, but unfortunately the series was just wrong on so many levels.  She landed the perfect part in Lady Mary.  I hope there’s another one out there for her with Downton Abbey concludes.

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