When the teaser trailer for “Downton Abbey: A New Era” premiered last year, it didn’t take the standard route of listing the cast for the film. Instead, the promo elegantly trumpeted the presence of Lord Grantham, Lady Grantham, et al. as though they were real people, with their names in a gilded font befitting the stately Roaring Twenties setting. Fans have spent six seasons and a movie with these characters, and even if they don’t recognize the actor Jim Carter by name, they’ll politely clap their hands in delight when they see “Mr. Carson” credited. (As they should.) ‘A New Era’ gives each of these characters their due, remaining true to what fans love with its signature charm and comfort while still managing to surprise.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” begins where most movies of its ilk end: with a wedding. The camera pans up the aisle, with more familiar faces than any actual ceremony I’ve been to, including my own. The recognizable piano-and-strings theme has the intended Pavlovian response, and you feel instantly at home in this place, despite being set almost a century ago. It’s now 1928, and modernity continues to pull at this ever-expanding family and those they employ. Violet (Maggie Smith, still perfect here) learns that she has unexpectedly inherited a villa in the south of France from a man she knew in her youth, and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and a wonderfully overbearing Carson make the trip to investigate. The trip feels a little like the episodes of “Full House” and “The Brady Bunch” where the families go to Hawaii, but with an actual budget to showcase the grandeur of the setting.
Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has allowed a film crew to descend upon the manor to make a movie called “The Gambler,” bringing gorgeous silent stars (Dominic West, Laura Haddock) and an equally attractive director (Hugh Dancy) to their home. This side of the plot won’t be surprising to anyone who’s seen “Singin’ in the Rain,” but writer Julian Fellowes somehow makes the proceedings feel essentially Downton as Daisy (Sophie McShera) and the other staff are wowed by the glamor in their midst.
As it jaunts between these two plots, “Downton Abbey: A New Era”’s biggest sin is how overstuffed it feels. An unfamiliar viewer who stumbles into this tea party of a movie will feel lost as it doesn’t truly focus on any one thing, skipping from storyline to storyline. Edits and scene transitions often feel rushed, which doesn’t fit with the languor of the setting or the lives of these people (or at least the upstairs contingent). Fellowes and director Simon Curtis ensure that every. single. living. character gets their moment (with even the dead ones getting the inevitable shoutout). In the series, you could easily leave a minor character out of an episode, but here, there could be a riot since you get this one chance. What would’ve happened if — gasp — Mr. Mason (Paul Copley) didn’t get his time in the sun? Would anyone have cared? (Apologies to him, but I had forgotten he existed amidst the dozens of characters over the years.) But by that same token, one of the strengths of the franchise is its love for these people, even the seemingly insignificant ones. ‘A New Era’ is especially kind to a few who might not have seemed to have earned this affection in their earlier appearances in the show, but it all feels so deserved and so surprisingly sweet. Fellowes’ arch wit remains intact, and he reins in the proceedings from feeling too sentimental as the show occasionally did.
As the title suggests, ‘A New Era’ hints at the future to come, with the ’30s — and World War II — looming in the not-so-distant future as power shifts within the Granthams. The series has always been interested in how cultural upheaval affects this one family and those in their orbit, whether it be World War I, the Spanish Flu, or the evolving structure of class and society. However, the “action” in this film seems less affected by changes in the outside world than one might expect. Even the venerable Violet meets change with a shrug this time around. It all adds up to an even cozier feel for the proceedings, upping the comfort level while lowering the stakes.
Despite its pedigree, “Downton Abbey” remains the fanciest of soaps — the kind that Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey use — but it’s still a soap. There’s drama and dalliances, and it would all seem so silly if it weren’t for its setting, cast, and budget. Some plot elements are so ludicrous that they earn giggles, but Fellowes makes it so purely enjoyable that it’s hard to complain too much. Even as death lurks along the edges here, it still manages to be a pleasurable time. At times, there’s an air of finality to this outing, but “Downton Abbey: A New Era” still somehow leaves the audience wanting even more time with this extended family. [B]