Almost as soon as Downton Abbey: A New Era started, I wanted to cry. For the last ten years, I have followed these characters, first in the show brought here to the States by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and continued with two feature length films. Its primary writer has always been Julian Fellowes, and you have to give him credit. When writers get their break to pen stories for screens larger than that inside their minds, it is usually with dreams of making it a hit. Few have those dreams become reality, particularly when you can stretch a show produced originally solely for the British public into six seasons that viewers devoured on both sides of the Atlantic. In the process, he has had to deal with an enormous ensemble cast, and get them all to continue to return. Fans of the series and the movies will know that at times Fellowes has been cruel, such as when he killed Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) at the end of season four, just after the birth of his son, no less. As cruel as this was, what has made his stories relatable, if not for the fact that they are focused on another time and people wholly different from ourselves, is that their experiences are not altogether different from our own. There are endings and beginnings for us all, regardless of station. In the hands of Fellowes, we see every facet of them masterfully, and with the beauty of landed English estates and villas in the south of France.
That beginning of Downton Abbey: A New Era that had tears welling up from the start features Tom Branson (Allen Leech) marrying his new love from the last film, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). The Crawley family is settling back into life in the staid surroundings of Downton Abbey when they receive some remarkable news: Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has inherited a villa in southern France from a former flame, the recently deceased Marquis de Montmirail. Violet had spent a week there as a young woman in the 1860s, and seems to have made an impression, to say the least. Given the fact that she is in the midnight of her life, she intends to give it to Tom’s daughter Sybil (Fifi Hart). That is not the only development. A film company from London wants to make a film at Downton. Of course, the titular head of the estate, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the 7th Earl of Grantham, is aghast at the thought of a movie crew rummaging about his home. What brings him around is his oldest daughter, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), bringing him up to the attic and showing him the leaky roof. With her making more of the decisions for the estate in general, and the money the studio has promised them, it would be a big help. Hence, with a good portion of the household off to France’s Mediterranean coast, Lady Mary welcomes a production company to their home. The movie diverges a bit here, but I will describe the French parts first. Lord Grantham and his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) arrive at Tom’s daughter’s new villa to a mixed welcome. The late Marquis’ son (Jonathan Zaccaï), who inherited his father’s title if not all his property, is deferential. His mother, Madame Montmirail (Nathalie Baye), is furious, and intends to fight the will in court. Despite their own lawyer attesting to the authenticity of the proceedings, she remains unmollified. Her ire becomes a secondary concern when the new Marquis discloses more about Violet’s visit, particularly the timing and how Lord Grantham was born nine months later. The worry that he might be an illegitimate French bastard is not helped when his second daughter, Lady Edith Pelham (Laura Carmichael), the Marchioness of Hexham, is shown a small portrait of a young Violet by their family butler, Charles “Charlie” Carson (Jim Carter). Another worry is added to Lord Grantham’s cares when Cora reveals that she has a medical condition that she thinks is fatal. Though she tries to cheer her husband, they return to England under a cloud, but up one French villa. While they are away, Lady Mary deals with a film shoot that becomes trickier by the day, not the least of which is due to director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) becoming increasingly attached to her. This situation is made all the more tempting by the absence of her husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), who does not make an appearance. Still, Lady Mary is poised enough at this point to handle unwanted affections, gentlemanly as they are. The person that tries everyone’s patience is the movie they are making’s female lead, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). She acts every bit the privileged movie star. She also sounds like Eliza Doolittle well before she meets Professor Henry Higgins. When the production is forced to switch to sound in order to be profitable, Lady Mary steps in to provide her speaking lines. The servants play a role, too, calming Myrna’s wounded pride and acting as extras when the others left for lack of pay. It all begins to wrap up as the rest of the family is returning from France. Whatever happy conclusion to all these proceedings, including the news that Cora’s condition is treatable and that Lord Grantham is not French after all, pales when Violet dies. The film does not end on this sad note, thankfully. Instead, we get Lucy and Tom arriving at Downton with their new daughter.
In my review of Downton Abbey (2019), I discussed a couple of flaws that normally irk me, but I am willing to give a pass to because of my love of the characters. The same things can be said about Downton Abbey: A New Era. The experience is enhanced if you have watched the show, though Joseph Moseley (Kevin Doyle) does provide a recap of the previous film to remind you of where you are in the overall story. That is helpful. The other issue is something about which I have praised Fellowes for his handling of it, and that is the number of characters. Not all the side-arcs and plots are germane to the overall story. For example, the relationship that develops between Thomas Barrow (Harry Hadden-Paton), Downton’s current butler, and the movie’s male lead Guy Dexter (Dominic West), does not affect much outside of the two of them, other than Thomas’ decision to go to America with the actor. There are other similar moments in the story with the servants. They are charming vignettes that flesh out the veritable world onto itself that is Downton Abbey. For the casual observer dropped into these proceedings with this movie, you might look at it and say, well, that is pretty, but so what? It is a justifiable position to take. Guess what? I do not care. I care more when it involves other movie franchises, and this is a particular flaw with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). You can call me hypocritical if you like, but I would also point out that there is infinitely more substance here regardless of your knowledge of what has come before it.
Of course, the biggest blow in Downton Abbey: A New Era, and probably why it has the subtitle, is the passing of the dowager countess. One of the many great pastimes of watching the show and movies has been in listening to her various witticisms. If they make another film, I am sure their absence will be noticeable, and will probably upset some. Yet, Violet offers sage advice on this front that could have come from the lips of any Catholic saint you could name. Her impending passing is in the back of your mind the entire time, and she addresses it with humor and wisdom. It is the sagacity in which I am interested. At one point she says that life is about getting past the unexpected and learning from it. It is those who hold on to whatever it is they had hoped in that tend to struggle the most. There is an old saying about how we plan and God laughs. A large reason why the saints were who they were is because they surrendered their wills to God. Take St. Francis of Assisi, for example. He spent most of his life dreaming of the life of a soldier. Instead, he hears God’s call to rebuild the Church, and his life of devotion and poverty started a movement the repercussions of which are still being felt today. I see the Crawleys in this manner. Lady Mary did not expect to have a film crew in her home, but allowing it not only brought needed funds, but gave her the opportunity to show off her acting chops. Remarkable things happen when you say yes to what God brings you, especially in those unplanned moments.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is a film particularly for fans. One might call it fan service, though I have always wondered why that is mentioned as a pejorative. Then again, as I was walking out of the theater, the two ladies in front of me were complaining about the death of the dowager countess. Did they not see the last film where this eventuality was all but assured? Change comes for us all, even Downton, and the show and movies have consistently demonstrated this fact in the most beautiful and charming way possible. Even if you have seen nothing before this film, watch it anyway and be transported. Downton Abbey is an experience, and a satisfying one at that.