It’s been a dozen years since the world was introduced to the Crawley family, the fictional British nobles who call Downton Abbey home, and their colorful cast of servants.
The series quickly became an international sensation, inspiring six seasons — a rarity in British television — and a 2019 feature film.
Fans couldn’t get enough of the upstairs/downstairs drama that not only chronicled the post-World War I collapse of the aristocracy, but also touched on issues of women’s rights, homosexuality, racism and other taboo topics of polite conversation over tea and scones.
The Crawley family is back and while the film is billed “A New Era” — as evidenced by the tweenaged grandchildren — creator Julian Fellowes instead focuses on wrapping up the storylines of the current generation.
At the beginning of the film, the family celebrates the wedding of former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leach) and illegitimate heiress Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). The cake has barely been cut as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is running the massive estate, begins to fret about the decaying state of finances and the castle’s roof.
Luckily, a movie production company presents an offer to film a silent feature and pay enough to lift the sagging books. No one is more skeptical than retired butler Carson, but he will not be around to scowl at this attack on the dignity of the house. That’s because he will be accompanying Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), Tom and Lucy and Lady Edith and Lord Pelham (Laura Carmichael and Harry Hadden-Paton) to the French Riviera, where the dowager countess Violette (Maggie Smith) has been willed a palatial villa by a mysterious and presumed former lover.
Plenty of antics ensue as the movie actors interact with the family and the star-struck servants deliver unintended cameo appearances at the most inopportune moments in the filming. In France, questions soon arise about what “exactly” happened during Violette’s week-long romance with the dashing French suitor.
While most of the sarcastic one-liners in the past have been reserved for the old lady, Fellowes serves up one of his most humorous scripts yet, allowing nearly all the cast more than a few opportunities to serve up some comedy. This is a lighter version of the somewhat stodgy family and the cast excels when given the opportunity to unbutton their tight-fitting characters a bit.
Again, while the audience is offered hints of the “new era,” most of the energy is spent on saying goodbye to the dowager, who must be 150 years old by now. It’s not a spoiler to share that this will be Smith’s last performance, and it’s also a farewell that should not be missed. (She gets the last word.) Similarly, butler Thomas Barrow, the long-tortured gay man, may have finally found love and a place in the world, as sparks fly with the dashing leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West).
And Edith, the overlooked middle daughter, is finally happy, married to a doting husband, mother to two children and ready to return to her career as a magazine publisher. She is the rare woman in that era to seemingly “have it all.” Only Lady Mary struggles with her station. She saved the house and found love, but her husband, Henry Talbott, seems more enamored with his cars and carefree adventures than domestic bliss in the countryside. Temptations arise and she is confronted with a moral dilemma.
Don’t worry, the film leaves the door open for another visit and, based on the guaranteed financial success of this installment, more are sure to follow. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” delivers in every way — inspired performances, a reminder of a nearly forgotten era that shaped generations to come and a return to the steadfast home that has welcomed all and is destined to endure.
Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.