Downton Abbey is a bit of an enigma in a world of superheroes and franchises. One of the biggest hits of the 21st century, this TV giant moved to the big screen in 2019 and was a massive success. Now we get the sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era and the title is a bit of a lie. There is nothing new here. We may be in a different period, but it’s business as usual for this updated version of Upstairs Downstairs. It’s the same as on TV: gentle, non-offensive period soap opera with a huge ensemble cast that just gets bigger.
The Crawley household is facing new challenges. The Dowager has received a villa in the South of France from a former admirer, which leads Lord and Lady Grantham to head overseas to contest the will. Meanwhile, the roof of Downton Abbey needs fixing, and when an offer from a film company to use the building as a setting for a movie, the Crawleys cannot turn down the fee.
Downton Abbey has become such a phenomenon that it’s almost critic-proof. No matter what you think about the tale of the rich and wealthy and the workers of the house, it has such a massive following of fans that even if you hated it, it would still be a success. The thing is, this is a classy, handsome-looking film that has nothing to hate in it. The production values are always incredibly high, with costumes and settings ideally in tune with the times, while the story, simplistic as it is, zips along at a terrific pace. At the same time, writer and creator Julian Fellowes masterfully manages to juggle the enormous ensemble cast with ease.
It is the writing that is the thing you really have to admire. Fellowes does something that most other writers fail. He allows all of his characters to shine. Even with such a big cast, you never once get confused about who they are and where their place is in this world. The two parallel stories run smoothly (the trip abroad is less interesting than the “kinema” tale) with dozens of subplots involving the rest of the cast. From Lord Grantham’s questioning of his father, to Lady Mary fighting the temptation of the young director in her home, to homosexual butler Barrow being wooed by the handsome lead male of the movie. All of the time, Fellowes has added plenty of drama and a sprinkling of humour to move things along, never saying or doing anything that will cause offence. Makers of family films need to take note.
The cast is in fine form, slipping into their characters like well-worn suits. Jim Carter is noteworthy as the old-fashioned Carson, struggling with the heat of France while trying to keep alive the standard of the English butler in a foreign land. Newcomers Dominic West as a dashing matinee idol Guy Dexter, and Laura Haddock as cockney film star Myrna Dalgleish, fit into the cast as if they have been there all the while. Once again, Dame Maggie Smith steals the film as the Dowager, being given all the best lines, delivering each witty one-liner with her usual sharpness.
Downton Abbey: A New Era gives us nothing new. From the usual traits that TV spin-offs follow, moving the cast to foreign lands, to a blatant rip-off of Singin’ In The Rain, this is still an enjoyable slice of escapism in a land that seems so distant to us now. It does manage to be better than the first big-screen outing; it’s funny, looks glorious and is surprisingly moving. While never a masterpiece and will probably be forgotten after a few weeks, while it is on, and a perfect distraction from the horrors of the real world.
3 out of 5
Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Dockerty, Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Tuppence Middleton, Hugh Dancy, Jim Carter, Dominic West, Laura Haddock, Allan Leach, Imelda Staunton, Joanne Foggatt, Samantha Bond, Racquel Cassidy, Sophie McShera, Penelope Wilton, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Brandon Coyle, Lesley Nicol
Written by: (based on characters created) Julian Fellowes
Running Time: 125 mins
Release date: 29th April 2022