Downton Abbey: A New Era

Downton Abbey: A New Era

2022, PG, 124 min. Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring Nathalie Baye, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Laura Haddock, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 20, 2022

An upstairs/downstairs soap opera set in the first quarter of the 20th century, Downton Abbey was perfectly sized to television. Julian Fellowes’ series (off the air since 2015) made the most of the medium, where capital-D drama could unfurl in seasonlong arcs alongside sillier subplots tidily dispensed in single episodes, and there was time enough to give everyone in the sprawling cast their shot at the spotlight. And that’s precisely why the supposed upgrade to theatrical feature – first in 2019 and now this second sequel – has been so misguided. It’s like taking an olive, turning it into a tapenade, and expecting it to still taste good bobbing in a martini.

Scriptwriter Fellowes returns to usher his saga into 1928, starting with a wedding and ending in a funeral. In between, two plots – one antic, one more somber – jockey for supremacy. At Downton, a film crew is shooting a melodrama on location, in an amusingly meta nod to the real-life Highclere Castle that’s stood in for the grand estate all these years. Lady Mary (Dockery) stays home to monitor the production and flirt with its comely director (Dancy) while the rest of the family decamps to the South of France, where the Dowager Countess (Smith) has inherited a villa under mysterious circumstances.

Director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold, Goodbye Christopher Robin) brings a placid directing style to the proceedings. He’s fond of wide, sometimes obstructed shots that emphatically convey the splendor and sweep of these palatial estates. But his close-ups couldn’t feel more perfunctory, and the script’s big swings at emotion are rendered mawkish when blown up on the big screen. The adult cast acquits themselves just fine, but I wonder if the director ever spoke with his child actors? Shunted to the side of the story and often literally the side of the frame, they appear polite but confused, as if someone dropped them off for the day at a film set but didn’t explain their purpose there.

Die-hard Downton fans aren’t going to grumble at the chance to spend more time with well-loved characters, and there are plenty of bright spots along the way. Fellowes is clearly having fun with the film set portion of the story, and it’s there that hapless Molesley (bless) gets the hero’s journey he deserves. This new era is beautifully evoked in music and costuming, with composer John Lunn adding some sprightly Jazz Age tuneage to his repertoire and costume designers Maja Meschede and Anna Robbins doing sumptuous work with Posh People at Leisure. On that subject, I'd be chuffed if somebody greenlighted Tom and Lucy and Edith and Bertie Play Couples’ Tennis. I’m thinking six-part series. Just not the multiplex, please.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Downton Abbey: A New Era, Simon Curtis, Nathalie Baye, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Laura Haddock, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West

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