Downton Abbey: A New Era is a serviceable bit of soap opera with an outstanding cast, but an uninventive story – here’s our review.

Packed full of family drama, grand architecture, and of course some barbed comments from Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley, this second Downton feature provides everything needed for a bit of light, and very posh, escapism.

In this sequel to the 2019 film, the Crawleys learn that the Dowager Countess has inherited a villa in the south of France from a French nobleman she knew only briefly, though it’s a mystery as to why. In an effort to find out more, the family takes a trip to the villa, both to scout out their new property and to unearth Violet’s secrets. Meanwhile, in an effort to repair their home’s leaky roof, Lady Mary accepts a lucrative offer to have a film made at Downton, which turns their stately home into a bustling film set.

The film, as with the series, boasts an incredible ensemble cast. Alongside the aforementioned Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern return as Robert and Cora Crawley, as well as Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot. Jim Carter is in top form as the no-nonsense Mr Carson, and there are some new additions as well. Dominic West stars as the dashing silent film actor Guy Dexter, while Laura Haddock is the beautiful but demanding movie star Myrna Dalgliesh. Finally, Hugh Dancy plays their exasperated but passionate director, Mr Barber. The family dog also flits in and out of scenes, featuring far too briefly for my liking.

Set in 1929, A New Era is set in the period where cinema was just starting to talk. This subplot provides some fun film set antics, and a lighthearted narrative that definitely hasn’t been done before within the franchise. Some of the jokes surrounding it, though, are rather classist. A character’s “common” accent is made fun of for being unfit for the big screen. For a film set in the 20s and focused on the aristocracy it’s not surprising, and it is done in a way that will produce a couple of chuckles. However, it still doesn’t quite sit right that a movie that is in other ways fairly progressive would deem it okay to mock the way someone speaks.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Aside from this one instance, the jokes do land. Maggie Smith has several great zingers that she delivers completely straight-faced, and despite not being in the film as much as other characters she’s the most memorable. “I’d rather eat rocks”, she deadpans at the prospect of leaving her room to observe the film shoot. Jim Carter, too, has his fair share of amusing lines, mostly aimed at deriding so-called ‘film people’ and, predictably, the French.

Aside from the one liners, what fans will otherwise want is soap opera-like drama. The filmmaking subplot offers remarkably little of this; it’s mainly about the servants being excited to be around famous people, alongside a story heavily influenced by Singin’ In The Rain. The journey to France, however, is a bit more promising. There are some family secrets that Lord Grantham must uncover, resulting in plenty of family drama. But none of it’s serious enough to really care that much about.

There’s also the issue of pacing. For every plot-driven scene, there’s one that meanders inconsequentially, showing us nothing particularly important. The main problem is that neither of the plots involve any kind of importance or urgency, leading to the entire film plodding along at a leisurely pace. By the time it starts to really wrap things up it definitely feels as though it’s outstayed its welcome. A New Era would be more at home on the television than on the big screen. However, if you’re in the audience mainly to take in the scenery and the visual splendour of it all, then this won’t matter too much.

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ll likely appreciate the chance to spend some time with these colourful characters again. Neither of the subplots are particularly inventive or hold any real importance, but it’s a chance to enjoy some light escapism and glamorous visuals for a couple of hours. Ultimately, however, this should’ve been a television special, not a feature film. Considering all the loose ends are tied up and no further sequel has been hinted at, let’s hope that’s a wrap on Downton Abbey. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era is in cinemas now.

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