Downton Abbey: A New Era is the second film spin-off from the TV series and, like the first, it doesn’t have to try especially hard if at all. It could be two hours of Mrs Hughes darning socks or two hours of Mrs Patmore concocting something disgusting (kidney soufflé?) or two hours of Lady Grantham requesting tea in bed and fans would still love it to the tune of whatever the last film made. (Millions.) That said, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for it. As the theme music starts up and we get that first sweeping vista of the estate, it feels reassuring and familiar, like putting on a pair of old slippers. On the other hand, old slippers can become highly embarrassing in time, so there is also that.
The cast have all turned up to do it yet again, including Imelda Staunton as Lady Bagshaw even though she’s given nothing to do whatsoever. The only character missing, as far as I could fathom, is Lady Mary’s husband, Henry, usually played by Matthew Goode. To explain his absence we’re told he is motor-rallying and currently in Istanbul although I have my suspicions. (Matthew Goode to agent: ‘TELL THEM I’M DEAD!’) Otherwise, we have all the upstairs people: Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady ‘monotone voice’ Mary (Michelle Dockery) and, of course, everyone’s favourite one-liner machine Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith; Maggie Smith to agent: ‘DID YOU TRY TELLING THEM I WAS DEAD?’). Also present are all the downstairs people who love to serve the upstairs people and carry on like they’re blessed. I had my eye particularly on butler Carson (Jim Carter), as even though I appear to have blanked most of the first film – Lady Mary has a daughter called Caroline? – I do remember he had developed a tremor and, on this outing, I was frantically worried whenever he served soup. But get this: he seems to have miraculously recovered!
Written by Julian Fellowes, of course, and directed by Simon Curtis, the film is set in 1928 and is a ragbag of subplots driven by two main thrusts: Violet had a French beau in her day who has left her a villa on the Riviera while Downton, which is in need of money for repairs, is being loaned out as film set. This is declared ‘ghastly’ and ‘common’ but needs must. So a posse of Downton residents decamp to the south of France to inspect the villa – poor Carson, boiling in his tweeds and boiler hat… but not shaking at all! –while others stay home with the film within the film’s crew and its two stars, played by Dominic West and Laura Haddock. They’re the best thing in this. They bring some actual heft even if their storyline is a shameless rip-off of Singin’ in the Rain. (Oh, Julian.)
It is afflicted by a ton of exposition and some truly terrible lines. (‘I love you in a way I thought I’d never love again.’) And it’s as highly predictable as it is highly familiar. There’s a birth, a proposal, a death, a paternity worry, a health scare; but nothing to ever frighten the horses, or stop you drifting off. Plus it’s transparently manipulative, particularly as it builds to its tissues-at-the-ready climax. I would further add that the production values, which once seemed so lavish, now seem meh compared with Bridgerton, say. But most inexplicably Maggie Smith isn’t given a single witty line to say. (Julian, you had one job.)
I do have a soft spot for Downton, it’s true, but those whose storylines have previously been resolved – Lady Edith, Anna, Bates – are left kicking their heels and what happens in the south of France can stay in the south of France, as far as I’m concerned. Old slippers? Sometimes they have to go.
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