'Downton Abbey: A New Era' actually a throwback in more ways than one

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

The new “Downton Abbey” film proclaims that it’s “A New Era,” but in actuality, it’s a real throwback.

It’s not just that “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a shiny replication of a world that’s nearly a century old, but it’s also a reminder of the world that we lived in when we loved “Downton Abbey,” those heady days of the 2010s when we gulped down seasons of the wildly popular, award-winning historical TV drama created by Julian Fellowes. Watching it feels like double escapism: to early 20th-century England, as well as to a pre-pandemic time.

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The series “Downton Abbey” did engage with political and cultural issues of the post-Edwardian time period in which it was set, including the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, as well as other social issues and political upheavals. It’s strange, then, how the films spun off from the series, 2019’s “Downton Abbey” and now “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” are so divorced from any barbed relevance or commentary. In 2019’s “Downton Abbey,” the plot revolves around a royal visit from the king and queen of England, which sets the Crawley family and their servants into a tizzy, and in “A New Era,” there’s a new set of visitors to the estate, a film crew, which adds a touch of cheeky self-reflection to the proceedings.

Penelope Wilton as Isobel Merton, left, and Maggie Smith as Violet Grantham in a scene from "Downton Abbey: A New Era." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Headed up by director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), the crew takes over the estate to shoot a period piece on location with stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who has taken over running the estate, agrees to the shoot because they need money to fix the roof, but she finds that she’s got a knack for guiding Jack through some of the inevitable bumps of filming a movie, marshaling the Downton staff to help.

Meanwhile, her parents, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) take off for the south of France with a delegation of Downton inhabitants to investigate a villa that’s been willed to the Dowager Countess Violet Grantham (Maggie Smith) by a mysterious former lover.

The film subplot is lifted directly from “Singin’ in the Rain,” as it turns out Miss Dalgleish’s unrefined cockney accent might prevent her from transitioning to the new world of the “talkies.” Thank goodness Lady Mary and the servants are around to help put on a show. Over in France, Lord Grantham is shocked when his host suspects that perhaps his parentage isn’t so English after all, considering the apparent ardor between a young Violet and the late Frenchman who left her the villa.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in a scene from "Downton Abbey: A New Era." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Simon Curtis, the intertwining storylines of “Downton Abbey: A New Era” are ridiculous and inconsequential, but maybe that’s exactly what the “Downton Abbey” audience craves at this moment in time. It’s a light “upstairs downstairs” dramedy that feels far removed from the political and social reality of late 1920s England, which is a fantasyland compared to mid-2020s America. At this point in the lifespan of “Downton Abbey,” it’s not even attempting to critically consider this wealthy, white aristocratic dynasty of landed gentry with which it concerns itself. Even the working class servants that prop up this family are concerned with the preservation of this practically feudalistic estate.

Perhaps it’s nitpicking, but the opportunity is there for “Downton Abbey” to feel a bit sharper and more incisive, but over the years, Fellowes has only allowed it to grow soft, offering it up as a bit of escapist fluff. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a chaste, mannered soap opera that feels like a relic of another time in more ways than one, but perhaps, that’s the entire appeal.

‘DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA”

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG (for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements)

Running time: 2:05

From left, Hugh Bonneville, from left, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael star in "Downton Abbey: A New Era." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

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