REVIEW: 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'

Enough already

'Downton Abbey: A New Era' poster / Focus Features
May 20, 2022

I'm not sure any story in any movie has ever mattered less than the story in Downton Abbey: A New Era. In this, the second feature film to be spun off from the six-season television series, a bunch of the residents and staff at Downton Abbey go off for a sojourn to the Riviera, while the rest stay behind and watch as a silent film is being made on the grounds. In the middle of the filmmaking, talkies break big and the movie is shut down. And in what may be the most shameless theft of a plotline in movie history, executed with utter shamelessness by Downton creator and writer Julian Fellowes, our heroine Lady Mary both suggests turning the silent into a talkie and dubs the voice of the leading lady with a screechy working-class accent. Yes, we're Singin' in the Abbey.

So Lady Mary is still there and still beautiful (although actress Michelle Dockery's face seems noticeably tighter). And she's joined by all the old favorites, save for the characters who were killed off so the people playing them could get other jobs. The many couples, both upstairs and downstairs, we've watched become couples over the past 12 years are present and accounted for, and mostly blissfully happy. Old enemies have become the dearest of friends. Old villains have become sympathetic. Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess still delivers a few acid punchlines but mostly tells everyone how wonderful they are and how much she has loved them.

To say the stakes are low here is to be unfair to low stakes. Any and all interpersonal conflict at Downton Abbey is a thing of the past. We just spend two hours watching people praise each other and admire each other and wish the best for each other and root for each other.

This inane and banal piece of blatherskite represents the final degeneration of this once-magnificent franchise. The first season of Downton Abbey, released in 2010, remains one of the greatest achievements in television history. It was a portrait of an aristocracy on the verge of its own historical destruction.

The Crawley family is on the verge of losing its control of the title castle because the Earl and Duchess of Grantham have borne no male heir. A solution is found by affiancing their daughter Mary to her cousin, who is the heir presumptive. But the fiancé dies on the Titanic, which means the title will then pass to a more distant relative, an upper-middle-class doctor who has no interest in being the lord of the manor. As all this is going on, the house's many servants are involved in many intrigues, some of them almost murderous.

The social and moral complexities of the class clashes were portrayed with meticulous care, with an emphasis on just how central duty and dutifulness was to the life of everyone at every level. For example: The Earl, we learned, had married his American wife solely because she was rich and could retire his father's debts, just as he was compelling his daughter to marry to save his family's hold on Downton.

But every second of that first season was haunted by what was to come just a few minutes after the end of its final episode—the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the Great War that would obliterate the old Europe and the old England of which Downton was a shining representative.

The show was a worldwide triumph, and for it to retain its artistic integrity it should have ended right there. But it didn't, and Fellowes and company cashed in by continuing the series through the war and trying to show that conflict's effect on the people in and around the house. It became increasingly soapy and preposterous—the Earl's footman ends up convicted for murdering his ex-wife, while the Earl's daughter runs off with a chauffeur who doubles as a secret Irish socialist.

Through it all there were all the trappings of a lavish visit to a vanished aristocratic past: the clothing, the furnishings, the jewelry. But the thing just got sillier and sillier, and the large-hearted Fellowes was always determined to provide the characters we had followed so loyally with happy endings.

Which is all that Downton Abbey: A New Era is. It's two hours of a happy ending. By the blessed end of its lugubriously endless conclusion, I was hoping the onetime Irish radical would just firebomb the place and spare us Downton Abbey: Yet Another Beginning. But we are sinners, and I fear we will get what is coming to us, whether we deserve it or not.

Published under: Movie Reviews