It would be easy to sit here and say “Action!” when thinking about Downton Abbey: A New Era, the latest entry in the ongoing series, now in theaters. It is, however, an apt description of the sequel to the 2019 film and the popular television series; a good portion of Julian Fellowes’ script and Simon Curtis’ direction keeps the dramatic families and classes moving about the screen, filling every brightly-lit scene with a bevy of characters buzzing about the locations. Amidst the chaos, tea, and crumpets, this sequel manages to lighten the differing classes, telling a witty set of stories and painting a theme of hope.
Set in 1928, Downton Abbey: A New Era is a smartly told tale of a brighter future centered around Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith, who is as charming as she is graceful and sly. The character isn’t in the film a great deal, but whether the story is set at Downton or a part of the family jetting off to the south of France, Violet is spoken of most frequently. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has married Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), ensuring the family’s legacy will continue.
Curtis, who takes over the directing reigns from Michael Engler, offers a more cinematic outing than the first, with characters having a purpose; story elements that don’t traipse over one another. Downton Abbey: A New Era is also more civilized than its predecessor. As Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) oversees a film crew wishing to set their film, The Gambler, at the estate, the story relishes the reasons for taking on the film crew and their objections. In a funny bit, the apparent reasons for inviting the film crew into the estate are necessary are revealed to Robert (Hugh Bonneville). Symbolic moments define the erstwhile needs of the home of tending to family, and our foundations are made apparent: the family is so embroiled in its politics that it forgets to care for their home. Of course, the loveable yet proper and stuffy Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) steadfastly objects.
As filming gets underway, Robert, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) make the trip to Nice, France, representing Violet in a villa she’s inherited and since forgotten about it. The scenes in the south of France are sunny and brightly lit, even during a nighttime party. There is hope painted for the clan’s future at Downton, complemented by cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Dunn contrasts his work in France with the dimly lit scenes at Downton as director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) attempts to get his film, one of the last of the Silent Era, shot. Barber likes Lady Mary when dealing with staff getting into frame and a relatively tightly wound Myrna Dalgeish (Laura Haddock) and a spritely Guy Dexter (Dominic West) to mesh. Fellowes’ inclusion of the film crew points to the hopeful future equally as much as the scenes in France look back. The contrast in storylines gives the characters exquisite moments in the film. Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Downton’s former footman, finds a role and a future for himself as each character naturally adjusts to the changes.
Rightfully so, Fellowes has seen fit to give Thomas Barrow the most significant growth out of all the characters, a fitting arc for the times we live. He remains dignified as his defenses start to break down in the company of Guy Dexter. Robert James-Collier and West play their scenes casually at first, coyly and downright comfortable.
Having seen only the 2019 film and this, Downton Abbey: A New Era has undoubtedly increased my appetite for the television series, if only to know where these lovely characters originated. More than that, though, the buzzy atmosphere, the light-heartedness of more serious worries the family experiences, and well-developed character arcs has indeed won me over.
Downton Abbey: A New Era
Directed by Simon Curtis
Written by Julian Fellowes, based on Downton Abbey by Julian Fellowes
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan
PG, 125 minutes, Focus Features