DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA
FILM REVIEW: DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA
Release Date: 29th April 2022
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern
Written byy: Julian Fellowes
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
``Fellowes needs to bring the drama back``
Creator and writer Julian Fellowes has adopted the Empire Strikes Back approach for this second Downton Abbey movie, and essentially split up the band. In Downton Abbey: A New Era, half of the cast are packed off to the south of France, while the rest are left to hold down the fort and deal with a leaky roof. It’s white-knuckle stuff. Not so much A New Era as more of the same, except slightly less so.
A New Era is set in 1928, a year after the events in the first movie. Proceedings kick off with the wedding of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to his new love Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). After that, the story is split into two main plots. The main plot is about Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess inheriting a French villa from a former lover, and what that means for the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). In a blatant case of life imitating art, the secondary plot is about Downton being used as the backdrop for a movie.
First things first. A New Era is still very lovely and charming and breezy. None of the problems here are big ones, and everything is uncomplicated. And that really is the appeal of Downton Abbey. If I live to be 100, I will never, ever, understand the British forelock-tugging reverence for the monarchy. Downton represents everything I despise about the English hivemind; unmerited inherited entitlement, know-your-place class discrimination, hereditary privilege, and above all, an obsequious “gawd bless yer ma’am” attitude to monarchy. I should hate it. But then there was that two-season will-they-won’t-they arc between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Cousin Matthew, and I was hooked along with everybody else.
The first thing you notice about A New Era is that Fellowes is running out of characters that can be married off, because there is only handful left. Which leads us to one of the movie’s niggling problems; everyone is getting on so well that there is precious little drama. Ladies Mary and Edith (Laura Carmichael) have now patched things up after spending years tearing literal strips off each other, and long-time panto villain Thomas Barrow (Robert-James Collier) is now a reformed character. After 12 years of (largely self-inflicted) abject misery, Barrow even gets the shift. It’s not exactly Queer as Folk, but given the target demographic, it’s positively ground-breaking.
What little drama there is feels very inconsequential. There are occasional bits that are quite moving, but A New Era doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings in the same manner as the series (or the preceding movie) did. But that’s the difference between a movie and a TV series. Plots can be left to percolate and develop for months (or even years) on TV. With a movie, drama has to be resolved. And there are plot points here that are resolved so quickly you may wonder what the point of it was at all. There’s no conflict, which is all very nice and pleasant, but the drama is missing.
Another problem with A New Era is that it moves away from the well-established Downton look-book. Over the course of the 5 years it was on, the TV series had established a very definite look and feel that went beyond the lavish sets and costumes. Downton on TV had a very specific look-and-feel. The cinematography was lush but simple and the camera was pretty static. It had a very limited musical score and the same leitmotifs were used over and over to signpost what was happening. The first movie pulled it off because there were no drastic changes. It kept the comforting style and it still felt like Downton. But A New Era feels further removed. The music has been updated, and the cinematography is more dynamic. This might sound stupid, but it’s too cinematic.
The character that needs resetting the most is one of the best. In the space of two movies, Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary has gone from a main character to a supporting one. Once one of the series stand-outs, Dockery is a bit lost in all this because Mary has nothing left to rage against. Going forward, the Matthew Goode problem will also have to be addressed. Goode – who plays Lady Mary’s second husband Henry Talbot – was largely absent from the first movie, showing up for all of 30 seconds to pick up his paycheque and talk about “cars”. But he’s not in this one at all (Talbot is apparently in Istanbul looking at “cars”). There are plenty of actors who would kill for the role, and who would show up for work too.
Every time he goes back to the well, Fellowes runs the danger of ruining a good thing. And we are getting to that point. If Downton is going to continue on the big screen, then he is going to have to make some drastic adjustments. Things at Downton have become far too safe and cosy. Fellowes needs to bring the drama back.