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Downton Abbey: A New Era review: Thin but crowd-pleasing

The second feature-length entry in the Downton Abbey franchise is a mildly pleasing movie for loyal fans of the show

A still from ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’
A still from ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’

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The 2019 film Downton Abbey picked up where the British historical drama series of the same name, set on the estate of Downton between 1912-1926, ended in 2015 after five years and six series. The story continued to follow the upstairs worlds, woes, trials and grand, aristocratic lifestyle of the Crawley family, and the downstairs world of their expansive staff.

Downton Abbey: A New Era, written by series and film writer Julian Fellowes, and directed by Simon Curtis, is set in 1928. The feisty and acerbic Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith, who adds a dash of spice to the role, has recently inherited a villa in the South of France. The family is befuddled as to why a French Marquis, who was barely acquainted with Countess Violet Grantham, should make such a generous bequest. This news prompts one half of the family—Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), their daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and his new wife Lucy (Tuppence Middleton)—to journey to France to meet the new Marquis of Montmirail, to see the house and perhaps uncover the mystery behind it all.

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Back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is now in charge of the estate, is keeping an eye on a production crew that is shooting a movie in the house, much to her father’s chagrin. Mary has persuaded Lord Grantham that the fees from the ‘kinema’ will help pay for much needed repairs to the house. The arrival of the crew, the process of filmmaking give senior butler Carson (Jim Carter) much cause for concern, the old Lady Grantham plenty of opportunities to deliver caustic one-liners ("I'd rather earn a living down a mine,” she says when watching the film shoot) and great thrills to the staff waiting on the movie stars.

Handsome movie star Guy Dexter (Dominic West) charms them all, and has a particular affinity to butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier). Director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) is trying to keep production afloat in spite of a crass and insecure leading lady (Laura Haddock) and finding himself drawn to a very composed Lady Mary. All the other favourite staff members are there too—some married, some hoping to be, including John and Anna Bates, Andy and Daisy Parker and Molesley.

The old has to make way for the new. With the arrival of talking pictures, silent movies are being sidelined, and with a movie being made at the house, members of the legion of Downton Abbey staff find new and unexpected roles. 

The cast continues to revel in the high life. The dresses and tailcoats are resplendent, the snobbery sky-high and the settings splendid. There’s also an emotional tug, which was flagged at the end of the first movie. The plot of this second crowd-pleasing film is thin. A third would require a more imaginative  script that challenges the new era and offers more than just a mildly pleasing movie for loyal fans of the show.

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