The tearjerker reunion of this increasingly creaky cast goes beyond vanilla viewing

Downton Abbey

Source: Focus Features

‘Downton Abbey’

Dir. Simon Curtis. UK/US. 2022. 120 mins.

Back In 2019, the first Downton Abbey film, as soft as Lady Mary’s silk slips, took a surprising $238m worldwide, $100m of which came from the US — from a reported $13m budget. The production spend doesn’t seem to have increased for the misleadingly titled Downton Abbey: A New Era (the cast is looking increasingly creaky and, plot wise, the show has long since stopped trying anything novel). The question here is whether the grosses will weather the Covid-era theatrical meltdown as creator Julian Fellowes sucks every last teardrop from the teat of this stately home melodrama and the show’s beloved doyenne makes her exit.

 Downton Abbey: A New Era delivers exactly the same as every other incarnation of Downton Abbey, only with a tearjerker ending for the core fanbase.

Clocking in again at a languid two hours, this, like its predecessor, comes across like a charming TV Christmas Special in which all the old familiar characters from the source soap reunite but find themselves with nothing to do as previous scripts have wrung them dramatically dry. Fellowes thus introduces two new elements: the arrival of a film crew at the Crawley family’s Downton Abbey, and Granny’s (Maggie Smith) mysterious inheritance of a property porn villa in the South of France. Simon Curtis directs the result like an assembly line of tableaux: drawing room to dinner table, reverse and repeat. 

The Crawley clan now has two sets of blow-ins to provide the drama and vanilla intrigue. Two glamorous film stars arrive in the shape of Dominic West and Laura Haddock to shoot a silent film in the stately home. They are facing an uncertain future with the arrival of talkies (this is the late 1920s). Meanwhile, the French family which owns the villa (led by Nathalie Baye) must acknowledge they have lost their home to the Crawley rosbifs who arrive en masse for a holiday in their new pad. All roads lead to granny, who is becoming increasingly frail, and, ominously, taking to her bed and being nice to everyone. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) moves to take the front and central role.

In this endless British summer (now joined by the more reliable weather in the South of France), aristos lounge around gardens picnicking while their children play cricket with the besuited butlers, walk in horizontal lines from drawing room to dinner table, and sit together after dinner in formation assembly so Curtis can get them all in the frame. (Seemingly every English dame over the age of 70 is now part of the cast). The lines have further blurred between upstairs, downstairs as the film starts out with its stock-in-trade, a fancy wedding - for the world’s luckiest Irish mechanic (Archie Leach) - which the servants all naturally attend as top-tier guests.

Downton Abbey: A New Era goes into a realm beyond comfort viewing - far, far away from its inspiration, Robert Altman’s crisp Gosford Park, which Fellowes wrote in 2001. Now it touches on Disney-ish fantasy, where the drama isn’t even remotely dramatic. (Despite being a married mother, Lady Edith - Laura Carmichael - might write an article about the new trend amongst the upper classes to summer in the South of France. Or she might not! Carson arrives in Toulon wearing a tweed suit and a bowler hat, etc etc). In fact gay butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier) — the bad boy of old - is the recipient of many pious speeches about how noble and lonely he is, only for the film to chicken out of a kiss when he finally finds love (Middle East and China grosses for the original film were good, so best not to offend.)

In a whizzing carousel of no war, no surprises, no peril, just 1920s frockery, Downton Abbey: A New Era delivers exactly the same as every other incarnation of Downton Abbey, with a tearjerker ending for the core fanbase. The only element that has changed is the market into which it is being delivered, and it grows increasingly hard in the era of streaming to see why British audiences would turn up to pay for the 1920s toffery they once got on ITV for free. It is the rest of the world which will deliver for Focus, or not, and after the British royal family’s recent troubled sailings into Commonwealth waters, it will be interesting to test the temperature for wistful odes to better days for the upper classes. Although the cosy comfort of Downton Abbey is something today’s more troubled royals can only aspire to.

Production companies: Carnival Film, Focus Features

International distribution: Focus Features/Universal

Producers: Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge, Julian Fellowes

Screenplay: Julian Fellowes

Cinematography: Andrew Dunn

Production design: Donal Woods

Editing: Adam Recht

Music: John Lunn

Main cast: Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Elizabeth McGovern, Brendan Coyle, Jim Carter, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West, Nathalie Baye