Review: Despite a Slightly Dimmer Storyline, Downton Abbey: A New Era Captures Much of the Franchise’s Charms Yet Again

If you had told me over a decade ago that a prim and polished television drama from PBS set within the gilded walls of a great British estate during the early 20th century would become one of the longest running franchises in modern motion pictures, I would've choked on my tea. Downton Abbey first premiered in 2010, becoming a sensation among middle-aged moms everywhere (and plenty of other people, too—myself included). The show's appeal is easy to recognize, from its lush settings and enviable costumes to the inherent upstairs-downstairs drama of those living and working on this historical estate. With a cast who already were or have since become stars in their own right (Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Penelope Wilton, the list goes on...), the story of the Crawleys and their various ladies maids, butlers, valets and cooks became must-watch TV from the jump. In fact, I don't mind admitting that on a 2015 trip to England, a friend and I carved out a day to make the 90-minute drive west of London to tour Highclere Castle, the actual estate that stands in as Downton Abbey in the show (and now films). From touring exhibitions featuring the show's elaborate costumes (yes, I've been to that, too) to pop-ups that immerse fans in this beautiful bygone era, creator Julian Fellowes has struck a chord.

After the show ran for five riveting seasons, the story continued in 2019's feature film simply titled Downton Abbey. The film, also written by Fellowes, picked up right where the television series left off; by this point it was well into the 1920s and the Crawleys we'd come to know and love during the show were growing and evolving as all families do, with marriages and births expanding the brood and storylines of war, illness and other tragedies tempering the characters' triumphs over the years. Received with all the warmth of the original series, the film was a welcome addition to this epic narrative and a fitting way to round out the franchise.

Of course, the only thing better than a good thing is more of that good thing, and who is Fellowes to deny the Downton devoted what they desire? So, the Crawleys, their extended family and those hard at work keeping the estate running all return for the next installation of this well-worn story, Downton Abbey: A New Era. Again set relatively closely after the close of the last film, Fellowes' main challenge this time around is to drum up yet another set of circumstances that are just as dramatic, engaging and swoon-worthy as those that have come before (how does one top a visit from royalty, after all?). He and director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin) mostly manage this as they thrust the family into the ever-shifting late 1920s, with movies and their newfangled sound, an aging old castle in need of repairs, and a matriarch in Dowager Countess Violet Grantham who is considering her final days and her legacy after she passes.

This time around, the film juggles two main plots, as half the family and staff jet off to France to investigate a villa Lady Grantham has recently inherited and the rest stay back at the estate to oversee a film crew who've come to make a movie on the grounds. All the regulars return, with the exception of Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot, Mary Crawley's second husband (written out with a clever storyline about his obsession with cars and racing). New this time around are Hugh Dancy as film director Jack Barber, and Dominic West and Laura Haddock as film stars Guy Dexter and Myrna Dalgeish, respectively. In France, Jonathan Zaccai plays the son of the marquis who left his villa to Lady Grantham, with Nathalie Baye as Madame de Montmirail, his widow who very much does not want this British family to inherit her vacation home.

Everything we've come to love about Downton Abbey is here, too, from those eye-catching costumes to the sort of mild-level intrigue and drama that adds just a hint of tension without ever really ruffling any feathers. As the contingent in France learns more about Lady Grantham's mysterious past and her connection to the marquis, Lord Grantham (Bonneville) begins to question everything he knows about his own past and his legacy. Meanwhile in England, Mary Crawley is overseeing the estate and the boisterous film crew taking over the great rooms for their production, which is quickly derailed when the studio decides that the silent film they're making is outdated before it's even been filmed, now that talking movies are all the rage. Like the drone shots that sweep over the regal Downton estate, A New Era's expansive two hour (and five minute!) runtime ultimately feels like more than enough time with this familiar ensemble, as multiple characters see their storylines progress in ways that will lead them away from the estate and into new adventures ahead. What's more, as the film volleys back and forth between its two main plots, one might get the slightest case of whiplash, Curtis and his team making apparently no effort to smooth out the smash cuts between the two, expecting their audience to simply keep up.

The film's French plotline is easily the most intriguing of the two, dealing as it does with themes of family, legacy and reckoning one's past with the future; the action happening back at Downton feels forced at best and silly at worst, a clear attempt to keep us connected to the place that started it all. With its rehashed Singin' in the Rain storyline and Mary Crawley's chipper "I've got a solution for everything" attitude (quite uncharacteristic of this stoic matriarch-in-training), these scenes risk an admiring audience's easily earned appreciation. Many of the film's subplots, from butler Tom Barrow's encounters with Dexter to Lady Grantham's health scares, are both predictable and unneccessary, but they serve to ensure that the film includes glimpses of mostly everyone's lives in the time we've got, a feat that takes special attention here versus over the course of a 12-episode television season.

And yet, Fellowes' script finds its way back to itself by the end, as we return with the family to Downton and these people we've come to know and love gather for yet one more milestone they'll share with each other—and us. For a film that tells us in its title what to expect—change, growth, beginnings and endings—its final moments are what die-hard Downton-ers (and the rest of you) have really come for, and they are as poignant as any season finale in the series' best years. There is talk of yet another feature film with the Crawleys and their staff, and while A New Era doesn't exactly inspire confidence that there is more story to tell here that's as engaging as the time we've already spent with them (unless, perhaps, Fellowes decides to jump forward 20-odd years or so...), an open invitation to Downton will always be happily—and promptly—accepted.

Downton Abbey: A New Era opens in theaters Friday, May 20.

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Lisa Trifone