Review by Paul Gibbs
The cast of Downton Abbey: A New Era. Either a group of people you view as almost family, or Maggie Smith and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of.
I have never seen an episode of Downton Abbey. I find serialized television dramas occupy so much time that it’s been hard to get me to give many new ones a chance for a good 12 years now. And now that I have kids it’s hard to even watch the ones I try to keep up with. But my wife did, and I saw the first movie with her. Surprisingly, not only was it relatively easy to follow (at least my wife providing occasional explanations as to who used to be married to who and how upset the audience was or wasn’t when they died), but I found myself quite swept up in the charm of it all and was looking forward to the sequel. We were given a quick “Previously on Downton Abbey” recap at the press screening, which was good because most of what I thought I remembered was actually from Gosford Park. But after having my memory boosted, I was ready to go.
The story begins in 1928, at the wedding of someone who used to be married to someone else before they died. Soon, it is discovered that Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) has inherited a villa in the south of France. At the same time, a British film studio wants to rent out Downton as the location for a feature film. The family makes the decision to send off of them to France and keep the other half home, with the reasoning being that two storylines will carry a feature film better than one. This may sound a bit like a season premiere of The Love Boat as rendered by Merchant Ivory, and that’s exactly what it plays like. But again, the cast and characters are so Britishly charming that it’s easy to forgive how silly it sometimes gets and be swept along (though I really had to work hard to accept some of the things were expected to buy in their portrayal of film production.).
For me, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot continues to be a standout, and of course Maggie Smith is one of the best parts of anything she’s in. Dominic Cooper (who it turns out is not the Dominic I thought he was at first, but in fact the other one), Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock and Jonathan Zaccai stand out among the newcomers. I can’t point to any particularly weak links in the mammoth cast. Director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman in Gold) does a credible job juggling such a large group of characters, and keeps things moving along at a good pace. Screenwriter/Creator Julian Fellowes is both a strength and a weakness, as he created these people and makes them feel real and endearing, but also throws enough twists in the second half of the film to fill up an entire season. It eventually becomes so overcrowded with happy endings, dramatic endings, surprises twists and delightful little misunderstandings that it’s a bit overwhelming. And yet it never stops being engaging, and when the biggest dramatic thread comes, it packs quite an emotional punch.
So, if your preferred brand of geekdom is more British country manor than Marvel Cinematic Universe (and there are plenty of us who can enjoy both), Downton Abbey: A New Era should be a solidly enjoyable visit with old friends and the people they married after their previous spouses died. If you’re visiting for the first time, expect to be completely lost, but enjoy how thoroughly charming everyone is, even if it all feels a bit more forced this time around.