The Downton movies are comfort food, like a good chicken pot pie on a cold winter day. A New Era is no exception. There is nothing surprising, and there are no real shocks (except one minor but surprising action that was actually set up earlier but was still startling when it happened). Seeing the movie is simply a visit with old and familiar friends, friends who might have aged a few years, but are otherwise just the same.
Creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes adds nothing new here, and actually heavily borrows something old. The film is subtitled “A New Era,” and that gives Fellowes the opportunity for new music and new intrusive inventions; once it was electricity, radio, and record players, and now it’s not only movies, but TALKING PICTURES! Instead of the King coming to Downton, we have two major events that shake things up. One is the arrival of a film crew to use the house as a movie set, and the other is a mysterious gifting of a villa in the south of France to Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess.
These two provide Fellowes with the only “original” elements of the film. The film crew provides energy and action, with the opportunity to give a few famous British actors several snarky lines about actors in general, which is moderately amusing, and the chance to have filming scenes interrupted by unknowing Downton staff, which is also moderately amusing. The French chateau subplot takes much of the Downton crowd to a hotter and more picturesque destination, providing jokes springing from the eternal British/French rivalry, ranging from the weather to differing national perspectives on life and love. This side trip provides the only elements of mystery here, which are twin concerns based on a “did they or didn’t they?” scenario and if they did, what that might mean for our male lead. Unlike most other films out today, the stakes are low, in spite of the film’s attempts to rachet up the drama.
The trip also provides Fellowes with the chance to sprinkle some late 1920’s dust on the generally staid proceedings. The music has changed to jazz, with the attendant change in dance. Record players abound. The clothing is jazz age. But thankfully, the live band singer has a very contemporary voice, which is much easier on modern years than the actual voices of the period (Bing Crosby excepted).
The most enjoyable parts of the experience include spending time with old friends that we know and generally love, with the added energy of seeing them a few years after our last film. Spoiler alert: couples are already married, the children are older, and the Countess’s sickness has progressed. Matthew Goode, who plays Lady Mary’s husband, couldn’t make it because of his work schedule, and he is missed. I half expected that he might get a day off and make a last-second appearance, but nay. Instead, we have Mary forming a possibly dangerous connection with the director of the film that invades Downton, who of course happens to be Hugh Dancy, therefore charismatic and good looking. This “will they or won’t they?” set-up mirrors the “did they or didn’t they?” scenario of the past with Violet, and adds to what little tension the film provides . (Spoiler alert: they won’t.)
Fellowes apparently spent most of his time with this script trying to get couples together. The Countess and her (possible) late lover are a source of concern and query. Tom Branson and Lucy, who got to kiss in the last movie, are now married. Daisy and Andy are happily married now. And to put the icing on the cake, Mr. Molesely (the ever-funny Kevin Doyle) and the completely rehabilitated Miss Baxter get engaged, with Mrs. Patmore and Sophie’s father (Mason) not far behind. A few of these set-ups are slam-banged into place, with nary a second of breathing room for either them or the viewer. But nothing comes close to the rushed gay romance that is awkwardly slammed into place, stretching believability on many angles.
Perhaps the biggest weakness for me is one that most will not find objectionable. But having written an unpublished book on Singin’ in the Rain, I found the heavy borrowing/stealing of its central dramatic ideas quite distracting. We have a striking blonde beauty who can’t speak well, a reluctance surprise (but really, not a surprise at all) speaker who can, and all of this coming at a time when film world is moving from silence to sound, endangering the careers of those with objectionable voices. I was honestly surprised at how much this film takes from Singin’, in spite of the classic being 70 years old this year.
The acting is uniformly good, as it generally is in a Downton episode. Jim Carter as Mr. Carson harrumphs more than usual, but that’s what we alike about him. Carter is half of an inside joke with his real-life wife Imelda Staunton (cousin Maud) in a hat shop this is cute for everyone, and worth a guffaw for those that know the real-life relationship.) Lady Mary is still that fascinating combination of sleek and edgy, and Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes brings in the most affecting performance in her relatively short time on screen. But it is Hugh Bonneville who is the most surprising. He has a scene that reminded me of Tom Hanks’ great scene in Captain Phillips, when I immediately thought, “Wow, I didn’t know Hanks could do that” (it’s the scene near the end, and if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean). Bonneville has always been solid and very British, but has a standout scene here. Color me impressed.
But though every action is telegraphed way before it happens, and the mysteries of the film are rather low in terms of dramatic energy, this is still a fun romp for fans of the television series and the first film. The camera, let loose a bit in the last film, is quite freer here, and some of the camera movements are exhilarating. But the film and series have always been about the people. World events, such as the sinking of the Titanic, World War One, the 1919 influenza pandemic, etc. all play a back seat to the two driving forces: will the characters be OK, and can they keep Downton Abbey going?
Big spoiler alert ahead: this is the time when the Dowager finally dies, and her scene not only has a classic Downton balance of sorrow and humor, but she goes out with possibly the best dying line in movie history. It’s classic Dowager, and it will rank right up there with “Made it, Ma—top of the world!” and other classic last lines. Her dying words might make this film a classic.