This review of “Downton Abbey: A New Era” was first published April 25, 2022.
The first “Downton Abbey” film, released in 2019, was an all-subplots-no-plot affair in which the most troubling dramatic question was who would peel the potatoes when the King and Queen came to dinner. It must have been difficult to make a sequel that was even more trivial, and yet the team behind “Downton Abbey: A New Era” has managed it.
Written once again by Julian Fellowes, the creator of the escapist toffs-and-staff television series, the film opens with a wedding and goes on to feature a death, a birth and a proposal (not in that order), and yet it leaves the impression that nothing whatsoever has happened.
The film hops back and forth between two storylines, if that’s not stretching the definition of “storyline.” In one of these, the aged Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) announces that she has owned a villa in the South of France for the past 50-odd years, as you do, but that she neglected to mention it to any of her inheritance-obsessed relations. Now that the mysterious Marquis who gave her the villa has died, she decides that her own family might as well take possession, and kick out the Marquis’ widow and his other heirs.
And so, an unnecessarily high number of Downtonians head to the Riviera to investigate, including the perpetually puzzled Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and some servants, such as the not-quite-retired Carson (Jim Carter). “I’m afraid we’ve even brought our butler,” remarks Robert to his French host, in one of the film’s more self-aware moments. “I’m not quite sure why.”
Well, the viewer will be quite sure. The producers have opted to throw away any semblance of plausibility and to follow in the footsteps of “Sex and the City 2,” among other TV spin-offs, by sending a group of over-privileged people somewhere sunny. It’s not a bad idea, necessarily. Along with some scenic views of the Mediterranean, the new location promises a vicious legal battle and plenty of fish-out-of-water culture-clash comedy.
Alas, it doesn’t keep that promise. Instead, the seaside interlude is so tranquil that it makes “Mamma Mia!” look like a brutal war drama. The Granthams are too rich to worry about whether they’ll keep the villa or not, the Marquis’ widow (Nathalie Baye) is peeved but can’t change her late husband’s will, and her cordial son (Jonathan Zaccaï, Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood”) is only too pleased to be rid of the place, so everyone settles into a succession of relaxed and courteous al fresco meals. The fish-out-of-water comedy? That begins and ends with Carson swapping his trusty bowler for a straw hat.
In the other storyline (and, no, Fellowes makes absolutely no effort to tie the two separate strands together), a film company asks to use the family’s Yorkshire mansion as a location for a Victorian melodrama called “The Gambler.” Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) notes that the fee will cover some much-needed roof repairs, and so the house is soon invaded by a bunch of showbiz types, among them a dashing director (Hugh Dancy), a cheery matinée idol (Dominic West), and a platinum-blonde star (Laura Haddock) who isn’t as gracious offscreen as she is on.
This scenario is an excuse for some feeble postmodern quips about the film industry (“I’d rather make my living down a mine,” sniffs the Dowager Countess), but again, there is hardly any conflict or jeopardy. The only issue is that the production has to switch with ridiculous suddenness from a silent movie to a talkie, even though one of the cast might not have a posh enough voice for her role.
Does that sound familiar? If you were being generous, you could argue that “Downton Abbey: A New Era” was a loving homage to “Singin’ in the Rain.” If you were being less generous, you would say that Fellowes had ripped off “Singin’ in the Rain” shamelessly, having appropriated every element of it except the songs, the dances, the jokes, and the charm.
Perhaps he was too busy with his other television series “The Gilded Age” to give “Downton Abbey: A New Era” his full attention. But even by the standards of film sequels based on cozily nostalgic Sunday-evening soap operas, his exposition-loaded screenplay is woefully short of wit, depth, or anything that a human being might actually say. Indeed, it raises the question of whether he wrote a script at all, or whether he just scribbled the gist of each uneventful scene on a stack of Post-It notes, and instructed the actors to convey that gist in the bluntest possible way.
Most scenes last a few seconds. Character A will say something like: “A motion picture — at Downton?” Character B will reply: “Yes, a motion picture at Downtown. I’m not happy about it.” And then, two scenes later, Character C will say: “A motion picture at Downton. Character B isn’t happy about it.”
Maggie Smith’s twinkly hauteur can make any line seem like a zinger, even if it isn’t, but no one else says anything worth hearing. It’s easy to understand why Matthew Goode chose not to appear in the film. It’s not so easy to understand why actors of the caliber of Imelda Staunton and Samantha Bond turned up for their demeaningly tiny cameos.
Fans of the television series may not care. The director, Simon Curtis (who is coincidentally married to McGovern) ensures that they get what they want, e.g., enviable tailoring, swirling orchestral music, whooshing drone shots of the Granthams’ honey-colored home, and a comforting, relentlessly nice atmosphere in which every crisis can be sorted out in minutes, and every unattached person has a soulmate waiting for them.
But it was disingenuous of the filmmakers to use the phrase “A New Era”, because the film relies wholly on its viewers’ affection for characters and situations they have seen many times before. Anyone who isn’t a diehard “Downton Abbey” devotee will wish they were watching “The Gambler” instead.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.