The first Downton Abbey had its charms, but it lacked genuine stakes. Granted, the Downton Abbey series wasn’t always conflict-heavy, but it did explore the Titanic’s sinking, World War I, and death. And what was the main conflict in the movie? Will the servants get to wait on the King and Queen? There was a simplistic appeal, but the premise just as easily could’ve worked as a TV episode. Downton Abbey: A New Era feels worthier of cinema. That’s partly because it’s about filmmaking.
The Great Depression hasn’t quite hit yet, but Downton has seen better days with the roof leaking. To keep the residence up to date, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) accepts an offer to film a motion picture at Downton. Patriarch Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) naturally finds this most unorthodox, but he has more pressing matters on his plate. His sickly mother Violet (Maggie Smith) inherits a villa from an old flame. Robert finds this odd until he begins to uncover just how close his mother might’ve been to her gentleman friend. While this subplot offers stunning locales south of France, it’s the story back at Downton that earns the film’s place on the big screen.
The movie within a movie approach is clever without ever becoming too meta. Where the film itself is directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), Hugh Dancy plays the director who comes to Downton, Jack Barber. Honestly, Mary has more chemistry with Jack than she’s ever had with her current husband, who spends this entire movie in off-screen land. Actor Matthew Goode was committed to starring in The Offer instead. Since there isn’t enough room for an adultery or divorce subplot, Mary and Jack seem destined for a “We’ll always have Paris” ending. We do get a nice romance between Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and Guy Dexter (Dominic West), a sharp silent film star who puts up a façade even when the cameras aren’t rolling.
With The Jazz Singer making talkies all the range, Jack’s movie is forced to shift gears mid-production. While Guy has the elegant voice to transition to the new era, the same can’t be said about his vain co-star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). Although she’s a classic Hollywood beauty, Myrna sounds like an English Lina Lamont. That said, you might have noticed that the plot sounds an awful lot like Singin’ in the Rain. All that’s missing is the singing and a bit more rain. While it might not be the most original setup, it still makes leeway for a lot of memorable exchanges.
Downton Abbey has always been less about plot and more about how the characters work off each other. The exchanges between Mary and Jack, Barrow and Guy, and Myrna and the long-suffering staff are what drive the story forward. The results are not only delightful, but provide significant character growth as well. That’s more than can be said about either Sex and the City movie or its TV continuation. In typical Downton fashion, Smith steals the show with her witty retorts, but she also gives the film a heart. Without giving too much away, creator Julian Fellowes acknowledges that Smith is getting up there in age. While this hopefully won’t be the last picture we see with Smith, it’s a satisfying final curtain if that’s the case.