I’m a late convert to Downton, so hearing that a new film was on the way in late 2021 was classical music to my unexpectedly excited, but not too excited we’re British, ears. Tales of the Crawley’s and all that surrounds them was one of my highlights in recent years, in a television sense, and best of all, I avoided spoilers because you’d all watched a few years ago.
But, for Downton Abbey: A New Era, I went in as fresh and well-dressed as that perfectly cut lawn is when they’ve got a fete out the front, and you can’t play croquet on an unkempt lawn, after all! Setting us up in the realms of the end of the 1920s, on the brink of the 30s, we return to Downton Abbey to learn that a film crew, and glamourous star Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), are setting up to make a movie for the British Lion Film Corp. But, not only that, because Maggie Smith’s iconic Dowager Countess has been keeping some of her past a secret, and this mystery will unravel in the South of France at a rather grand Villa that’s been left to the family, by someone she knew well when she was young.
Thankfully, Downton Abbey: A New Era retains original creator Julian Fellowes on screenplay duty, with Simon Curtis directing – a man with extensive knowledge of the British theatre and film for many-a-year now. With these two in charge, and that huge ensemble cast returning – of which there are approximately 22 characters – the wheels keep turning, and those important cogs all have their moment in the story. In truth, there’s an energy within the film, starting with the Branson Wedding, where a definite jolliness surrounds the actors, clearly pleased to be back in their characters again, especially evident in the South of France, and later when the ‘in’ film is being made – and I loved this sincere element.
Overall, A New Era is a bit of a celebration of the entire Downton setup, and all the optimistic sides. Almost everyone is coupled-up, or will become so, although it does linger between the poignant and the past, especially when it comes to Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley. Whilst we all know Smith is the genuine article, I also think she’s created an iconic on-screen character for our modern era. As sharp as a knife from Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) kitchen, with bang-on delivery with comic one-liners that can cut deep but they somehow find the right balance every time. But, of course, she’s also getting older, and so her legacy and real heart is not hidden away here, her story from the very beginning of the entire Downton Abbey history finds plays a massive part, and if there is a dry eye left in the house afterwards, I’d be very surprised.
I particularly adored the staff of Downton getting a chance to step into the shoes of those they’d worked for all those years, by becoming extras in the film and getting to sit at the table they’d served, and sure – there’s an elevated level of nostalgia and easy endings but why not? This is Downton Abbey, and that cast of Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Allen Leech, Tuppence Middleton, Penelope Wilton, and also Hugh Dancy here, is a special one.
As it could be the final Downton Abbey outing, I welcomed the progression for characters like Daisy (Sophie McShera), who gets a power moment, which is what she has learned that from those around her. Moseley (Kevin Doyle) also gets a chance to step into the spotlight, and after his kindness and eventual relationship with Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), it feels right. While some remain similar, Carson (Jim Carter – Note: that moment with his real-life wife, Imelda Staunton, was inspired) and Mary (Michelle Dockery), who will always be important as they are, you do feel they’ve all fleshed out over time, and even Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds redemption, which says a lot for the audience, as somehow we all want them to find happiness, whatever their faults in the past.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is exactly as you’d expect, and that’s all I wanted, it’s the wonderful hit of escapism on a summers day, and beyond.
There’s an impressive array of extras, including a lovely ‘On Set,’ Behind-the-Scenes featurette, a tour around new lead Butler Barrow (James-Collier) Office, we get a little insight at the dynamic that’s been created both in character and real life, plus the friendships that exist, and these are the fun things. It feels like fun family chaos, and they all embrace that.
We take a delve into the opening scene, The Branson Wedding with Tom (Leech) and Lucy (Middleton), to discuss the very modern opening shot and visuals, but still of its time. We also look at the build of that scene, including what’s in the cake (I knew it!), the joys of British rain while trying to film, and cast members talking about Simon Curtis’ directing and his supportive nature for everyone, keeping it fun and lively. There’s a look back at the magic of Maggie, she’s a phenomenon. Sharp and brilliant. The genuine article. The cast also discuss her comedy, how she spins lines as the true centre of everything.
We also spend time delving into the film within the film. It’s great to learn about one of the cameras they use, and its history, and how it’s linked to Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python. We hear from the cast, and their excitement of the staff swapping their roles, plus James-Collier discusses his own lack of range –haha! – and there’s a little inside note on more film history, which moves in that era from silent to talkies, and everything that goes with that. Did you know that the film inside the film is based on the original Blackmail film? Love that element.
Finally, yes more! We head onto the Ship, which is the original Royal Yacht Britannia, which now sits in the Docks in Edinburgh. I did not know it’s the only home designed by the Queen and Prince Philip themselves, which is amazing, and the quality still shows even though it’s been decommissioned. And finally, finally, yes two, it’s Spill the Tea with Carmichael and Leech, which is a classic question/answer – which rounds everything off nicely. Oh, and a director feature commentary as well, if you’d like it!