Downton Abbey: A New Era, like the television series and the previous film installment, flirts with high stakes yet nothing changes. Audiences know the Crawleys and wanted a “where are they now” kind of feature. Nothing has changed at Downton since the television series ended, except the clothes. Screenwriter and series creator Jullian Fellowes and director, Elizabeth McGovern’s (Lady Cora Grantham) husband, director Simon Curtis (The Art of Racing in the Rain, 2019), deliver that. This film’s hook? Lady Violet Grantham (Maggie Smith) inherits a villa in the South of France and she has left it to Sibby, the deceased Lady Sibyl Grantham and her chauffeur husband, Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) daughter. Meanwhile, everyone titters behind their hands, did the Dowager have a torrid affair with a French nobleman so many years ago?
The film, shot at its familiar Highclere Castle, Hampshire, United Kingdom location and a new location, La Villa Rocabella, Le Pradet, France, don’t disappoint. Downton Abbey: A New Era still serves gorgeous, familiar interiors, misty mornings in a luxurious estate’s park and a bevy of servants to see to one’s every need. This reviewer, a devoted fan who re-watched the television series twice during quarantine, wondered at the screening of A New Era, “Just what is it the Grantham’s do all day?” The answer is, change clothes a lot and experience low stakes angst.
That sentiment is not completely fair, as Lady Edith Pelham, née Grantham (Laura Carmichael), owns a magazine and returned to work as a journalist. Lady Mary Talbot, née Grantham (Michelle Dockery), has the sole burden of ensuring Downton Abbey is in good repair and the estate is profitable. Lady Cora Grantham is president of the local hospital and has helped steer it towards a state of the art institution for the village.
In this film, modern age comes a-knocking, this time in the form of one of the first films shot on location. Downton Abbey needs a new roof and Lady Mary makes the responsible decision. The Dowager Countess and Lady Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), both not capable of their long, snark filled walks any longer, instead watch the filming process and snark quietly. Gentry and nobles alike use this set up to evangelize about how The Old Ways are dying and how they must maintain them. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the long time Downton butler who is never quite retired, is the main voice of this sentiment.
The film sets up for shooting at Downton while Lord and Lady Grantham decide to see the villa in the south of France for themselves. And who can blame Tom Branson and his new wife, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), and others for tagging along? A free trip to a villa on the French Rivera? Yes, please. Branson, ostensibly a socialist, wonders aloud at his daughter Sibby inheriting such wealth and goes on to blithely remark they will just teach her to be charitable. His transition from working class revolutionary to upper class liberal stings.
Like the previous Downton Abbey film, there is a lot of angst and very low stakes. What problems there are are quickly resolved due to their privilege and access. If you want a film that updates the viewers on favorite characters, where nothing changes but the clothes, Downton Abbey: A New Era is the film for you.