Downton Abbey: A New Era – Review

Cert – PG, Run-time – 2 hours 5 minutes, Director – Simon Curtis

While Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and the staff oversee a film shoot at Downton Abbey many of the other faces and residents travel to the south of France, to a villa mysteriously left to Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith).

With such an extensive range of characters, both within and out of the wealthy Grantham/ Crawley family, you would expect a film adaptation of Downton Abbey to have a lot to cover within various different strands. However, when the first feature adaptation of the hit television series was released in 2019 it turned out to tell the story of the house preparing for the king and queen to come and stay generally rather well. At least that’s what it was for those who have never seen the series before. For those who had there were a great many elements to dive into and keep track of continuing from the show. Legacies, hidden romances, a secret gay relationship, marriages, illnesses and so much more. Meanwhile, the sequel feels both much lighter and somehow busier. While many of the staff in this apparent new era – it’s noted by Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) that the house wants to “enter the 1930s with out heads held high” – are dealing with a film shoot occurring within Downton, many of the key faces and residents are sailing down to the sunny landscapes of the south of France, to a villa mysteriously bequeathed to Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith – the straight and sarcastic humorous highlight of the film) from a gentleman she had a one week romance with in the 1860s.

Certainly the latter element is along the lines of the more general British small-to-big screen adaptation in sending the characters on holiday, it also has the bigger displays of wealth and stiff-upper-lip manners that you would expect from a period drama such as this. Yet, there’s a fair deal of build up to get to this point, and indeed the filming. With so many characters there’s plenty of jumping back and forth from scene to scene of brief conversations in grand halls and stairwells. It’s frustrating that you can almost see and hear the joins between each scene, the director shouting ‘action’ and ‘cut’ at the start and end of each take as you can pretty much see the start and end of each scene, with very little to bridge them together. It all revolves around potential build up to the core two strands of the film, both generally unrelated, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, yet provides little to hook you in due to the somewhat lacklustre construction.

However, as the cameras start rolling in the Abbey and film stars begin to show up – primarily Dominic West’s Guy Dexter and Laura Haddock’s Myrna Dalgleish – things begin to properly move along. The production of The Gambler is halted, however, when the true threat of the talkies on the silent film industry is revealed. The sweeping effect of sound in film, which causes great agitation to director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), is certainly dealt with with a fair deal of obviousness and heavy-handedness, but, as with before, once the apparent build-up of another idea is out the way and production shifts to involve sound there’s some interest and engaging enough moments created in the narrative to somewhat bring you in. Certainly nothing overly challenging is produced, as is likely expected from a product such as Downton where half the film involves a number of characters having gone on ‘holiday’ to investigate the matriarch’s “mysterious past”. The revelations and conversations are somewhat thin, but do just about enough to move things along.

Much of this comes before the second half where amongst the progressions of the two core strands more is introduced. More to do with hidden relationships and returning loves, quiet illnesses, etc. Most of this content appears to be for those who have followed the series, especially when it becomes dominant in the lengthy final half hour of the film, where it feels like things are constantly coming to a close before something else needs to be wrapped up. It’s likely that this moment will appeal and engage the original TV audience more, especially with the followed threads being more in their knowledge, perhaps. Whereas for those coming to this afresh, or even just based off of the first film, it may likely seem quite drawn out, although there are still some amusing and engaging moments throughout to keep interest held – and things don’t quite dive back into the stop-start nature of the opening stages.

The overall feel of this apparent new era of Downton Abbey is that while the opening and closing stages lead to the 2 hour plus run-time being felt – although the closing stages do have more to be amused by – the mid-section helps it along with enough content and lightness to carry things through. It might not be the tightest of films, but thanks to some of the chuckles along the way, and a handful of points of interest to keep you engaged once things properly kick off this half-return to Downton is serviceable viewing for those who have never seen an episode of the series, and for the fans a likely enjoyable (seeming) conclusion.

The start and end may be somewhat drawn out, the latter to wrap up loose ends and bring a likely enjoyable conclusion for fans, but within the two core strands of Downton Abbey: A New Era there’s enough to like and be amused by to lightly pass the time well enough before things begin to get slightly overstuffed.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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