By Lynn Venhaus
This beautifully filmed sequel is as welcome as seeing old friends again now that we’ve been through a global pandemic. And as a merry follow-up film, “Downton Abbey – A New Era” couldn’t be more charming and delightful – and provide satisfactory story arcs for all major and minor characters.
Half the Crawley clan heads to the south of France to investigate the Dowager Countess’ (Maggie Smith) newest inheritance while the family’s new matriarch, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) stays home to oversee a movie being shot there (they need a new roof).
Only, it’s impossible to divulge plot points because of the big reveals throughout its two-hour runtime. The entire historical period drama, tinged with warm humor and trademark zingers from creator and writer Julian Fellowes, is one big spoiler alert.
That said, the two overlapping plots are deliciously engaging – a sojourn to the south of France to stay at a grand villa that has its own jaw-dropping backstory, and a glamorous Hollywood film crew taking over the august estate. It’s 1929, and they will roar headfirst into a new decade.
For fans, this is as enjoyable as opening presents on Christmas morning. And dare I say, even better than the first film, which continued where the series left off, updating the lives of the downstairs servants and the heirs of the Earl of Grantham.
Three years after the first film dealt with a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary in 1927, and seven years after the hit TV drama ended its sixth season (2011-2015), award-winning run, the family and the servants are still in a flutter – only this time have a gift horse to speculate about, and stars in their eyes from the intrusion of movie people.
The melodrama gives the characters plenty to fret about and deal with, making them relatable to us commoners as power shifts and romances begin and deepen. Director Simon Curtis, who made the captivating “My Week with Marilyn,” nimbly weaves both plots together for a satisfactory narrative.
The addition of the film crew, who starts off producing a silent picture but must accommodate the growing popularity of ‘talkies,’ provides comical encounters and an engaging subplot for Lady Mary, with Michelle Dockery in classy form.
Hugh Dancy is earnest as smitten film director Jack Barber and a jaunty Dominic West is dashing as movie star Guy Dexter, while Laura Haddock does her best Jean Hagen as the Tinsel Town beauty Myrna Dalgleish whose crass voice needs an overhaul as does her uppity attitude. Shades of “Singin’ in the Rain”!
Maggie Smith, the two-time Oscar winner, owns the film as quipmeister Violet Crawley, effortlessly delivering her customary putdowns.
Just as the first film, “A New Era” is opulently crafted, with exquisite costume design by Anna Robbins and Maja Meschede and production design again by Donal Woods befitting a regal world of aristocratic wealth and position.
Andrew Dunn’s sumptuous cinematography keys in on the scenic splendor of the Mediterranean coast as well as effective shadows and light in the indoor movie making scenes. Composer John Lunn returns to accentuate every mood with swelling strings.
The real Highclere Castle in north Hampshire stands in for the Downton Abbey homestead, and still makes one swoon.
I’m ready for a third chapter, but if this is the end, what a fine swan song it is.
“Downtown Abbey: A New Era” is a 2022 historical drama directed by Simon Curtis and starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West, Laura Haddock, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Stanton. It’s rated PG for some suggestive references, language, and thematic elements and its runtime is 2 hours, 4 minutes. It is in theatres May 20. Lynn’s Grade A.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.