There’s just something about Downton. A triumphant, globally popular TV series, which has since made the move across to the silver screen in seamless fashion, and in truth, many of us really shouldn’t like it. “Oh that’s not really my sort of thing”, I’ve probably said out loud, once or twice. Yet when watching this sequel, there were moments you could hear me laughing, and moments when, if you looked closely enough, you’ll have seen a few tears streaming down my face as well. It’s testament to good writing, and when you have an accomplished and experienced author on top of things, such as Lord Julian Fellowes, it results in pretty good entertainment. No matter how cynical you may be, you simply can’t help but care.
While Downton Abbey is coming to the movies, in this production, titled ‘A New Era’, it is in fact the movies that are coming to Downton Abbey, as a film studio approaches the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) – amongst all the others who seem to partake in every intimate meeting, sitting in the backdrop eavesdropping, in a bid to convince the affluent family to shoot a silent picture in their grandiose abode. Given the leak in the roof, and the needs for some funds, the family begrudgingly oblige, though the staff downstairs are somewhat more excited about seeing the stars up close.
As director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) brings along his leading actors Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) and Guy Dexter (Dominic West), some of the family see this as an opportunity to make themselves scarce, and so set off to the South of France, to make sense of a villa mysteriously left to Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) from a recently deceased French aristocrat, as the family become enamoured by the matriarch’s intriguing, and elusive past, while also keeping a close, sombre eye on her present, and what may be left of it.
This sequel is a true masterclass in ensemble writing. The above plot outline barely touches the surface, as Fellowes manages to intertwine such a vast myriad of different characters, and somehow make it feel as though each has their ‘moment’, every character with an arc. Considering the sheer wealth of those involved in this world, from the family upstairs to the staff who work downstairs, this is no mean feat. There’s a touching storyline concerning Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle), while for the second consecutive film the most intriguing character, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) remains the leading candidate for the ‘who would have the most interesting spin-off?’ debate (though please don’t consider this an encouragement, Fellowes).
It should be said that the writing remains somewhat flawed, and that’s not referring to Mr. Carson’s (Jim Carter) occasionally, Brexity digs at the French, but just in terms of the fact that Fellowes is a little out of touch at the age of 72 – and yet that doesn’t remain an issue, for the whole world that we are inhabiting is unapologetically out of touch. For a film set in a very specific period of time, it feels time-less. The introduction of the film industry is wonderfully compatible in that regard, as the romanticised look back at old silent cinema, and the breakthrough into the ‘talkies’, is a whole tonality and feeling that is a match made in heaven with this franchise, and with these characters. It enforces that overtly cinematic and hammy approach, and thrive in the notion that being entertaining should be of the upmost importance – and here, yet again, it succeeds.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is out on April 29th