Movies

The New Downton Abbey Movie Gives Us What the First One Didn’t

A New Era provides the consummation for which many of us have devoutly wished.

Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith confer in fancy pastels while looking on in alarm
Focus Features

Community’s greatest gift to culture was coining the phrase “six seasons and a movie.” With those five words, creator Dan Harmon identified the ideal duration for a complicated narrative with a lot of moving parts. It’s more than enough time to introduce a location and a set of characters, and then romance them, marry them, widow them, imperil them, and rescue them over and over and over again. Once that scenario starts to feel stale, the beloved characters—and the audience—are finally released from their torment in a glorious cinematic climax.

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That’s the theory at least. Downton Abbey, the almost comically British import whose six seasons aired on PBS between 2011 and 2016, botched a couple of the key elements in this formula. Most painfully, writer Julian Fellowes leaned a little too hard into the “over and over and over again” bit. The upstanding stewards of the aristocratic country lifestyle defended it from soap-wielding servants and randy Turks and faking Canadians and other ungrateful schemers way more times than anyone could pretend felt “fresh.” And having hit romantic gold with an absolutely scorching will-they-or-won’t-they love story in the first three seasons—one that was rather cruelly rent asunder by a restless actor deciding to leave the show—Fellowes failed to create another relationship that any sentient being could give a hoot about.

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Now he has violated the other half of Harmon’s phrase by making a second movie, and thank goodness, because that long-desired resolution is finally served. The first film, 2019’s Downton Abbey—even its title reveals Fellowes’ love for repetition—provided a welcome return to Yorkshire, and to those frustratingly constant characters, but it was even more of the same old same old. Meanies meanied, good guys gooded, zingers zinged, and then the theme tune played without a scintilla of resolution in sight.

Downton Abbey: A New Era takes us back to those familiar faces, but it’s clear from the first bars of that gorgeous, rousing theme music that things are a little different this time around. The establishing shots of the house and the surrounding estate make the place seem so stately and grand that I actually gasped when I beheld them. The 2019 film was directed by Michael Engler, who has spent more than 25 years helming episodes of TV shows like My So-Called Life, Sex and the City, and, yes, Downton Abbey. Not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with that. There were some excellent sequences in the first film, especially its dynamic opening scene. But it looked like an episode of television, specifically an extended episode of Downton Abbey.

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Simon Curtis, the new film’s director, also served a long apprenticeship in television, after a storied run at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but he clearly knows how to put money on the screen. Curtis’ direction makes Downton seem more imposing, and perhaps even more worthy of preserving. He also has the good sense not to linger over improbable plot lines.

The initiating event of this latest chapter in the Downton saga involves Maggie Smith having to spout such arrant nonsense you can tell she wants to zing her own self. It seems the dowager countess has inherited a chateau in the south of France, so naturally half of the Crawley clan heads across the Channel to inspect it. What happens there is so silly, I can’t bring myself to spell it out, but at least everyone gets to don gorgeous summer-weight clothes and swan about in a beautiful bit of countryside. It is a treat for the eyes, if not for the brain. (Here I am forced to acknowledge that there’s a recent mini-trend of British TV shows—Murder in Provence, Death in Paradise, Signora Volpe, and The Madame Blanc Mysteries, to name a few—leaning on the scenery and sunshine of a foreign land to lend an air of glamour and mystery to otherwise bog-standard fare. Could it be long before we get Murder in le Downtonne?)

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Meanwhile, back in Britain, a film crew descends on Downton, providing an opportunity for the servants to prove that a bit of salt-of-the-earth frankness can solve any interpersonal problem, and for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to show that she could have been Mary Pickford if only she didn’t have a massive estate and an absent husband to cope with.

It’s all a lot of  poppycock, and yet! Despite all this carping, Downton Abbey: A New Era was as satisfying a filmgoing experience as I can remember. Perhaps the nonsensical narrative lowers viewers’ defenses so the emotional anvil can land all the harder. Julian Fellowes is very bad at a lot of things, but the man knows how to tug on the heartstrings. This is a story packed with marriages, engagements, births, and well … just be sure to arm yourself with Kleenex.

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