Likewise, this week’s “Downton Abbey: A New Era” – the second spin-off film from the long-running soap opera about the ups and downs, romantic and otherwise, of an aristocratic British family and their servants – s opens with a double wedding scene that sets the tone for several crowd-pleasing pairings that will soon follow. We are told of the marriage of former chauffeur and widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to housekeeper Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton) and the marriage of footman Andy Parker (Michael Fox) to kitchen assistant Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) .
“Downton Abbey” is back. The film based on the British soap opera is an overloaded guilty pleasure.
These unions between favorite sentimental characters will not surprise anyone who has seen the last film. And for those who haven’t, there’s a helpful prologue that accompanies “A New Era,” courtesy of footman-turned-teacher Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), which effectively recaps the events of the tumultuous drama of 2019, in which a visit by the King and Queen of England caused all sorts of commotion, up and down, at the titular Downton. (All sequels should be this – there’s no other word for it – caring about their audience.)
But these introductory love stories are only appetizers to the main course of romantic intrigue on the menu of this tasty soufflé from 1928, which concerns the possibility of a week of passion, some 60 years earlier, between the real everyone’s favorite matriarch Violet Crawley, aka the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), and a mysterious French Marquis. No sooner has Molesley dispensed with his preamble than the Crawley family lawyer (Jonathan Coy) arrives at Downton with the revelation that the Countess has been bequeathed a villa on the French Riviera by a nobleman recently. deceased, apparently someone once in love with Lady Grantham in the early days of her marriage.
Speculation is rife about the nature and extent of this secret relationship, and whether the Dowager Countess’ son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) could really be… how awful! — half French. This bomb precipitates a trip to southern France by most of the Crawleys; it’s an utterly absurd plot from series creator Julian Fellowes – needed only as an excuse to vary the setting. (And, by that measure, it’s a resounding success.)
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Meanwhile, back at home, Robert’s daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), must oversee a film crew who have hired Downton for filming, in exchange for a sum that will cover repairs to the leaking roof of the manor. It also presents director Simon Curtis with an opportunity for comic relief: minor characters walk around the set as the camera rolls, and the gorgeous female lead (Laura Haddock) is discovered to have a squeaky Cockney voice. an Eliza Doolittle when production shifts from silent film to walkie-talkie. Flirtations occur, between some members of the Crawley family and staff and two members of the film crew: his handsome director (Hugh Dancy) and the debonair leader (Dominic West). The action of the story oscillates between the two places, Downton and France.
The film’s subtitle most explicitly refers to the advent of walkie-talkies, which were just beginning to develop in the late 1920s. But “A New Era” has several other meanings as well, including the message of gay tolerance in the film (probably somewhat anachronistic for its time). To gay butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), whose unrequited love story featured prominently in the last film, finally comes the prospect of happiness. “I wish you all the happiness this cruel world can offer,” Lady Mary told him, not recognizing that she wasn’t saying much.
But there are also other dramatic shutdowns that signal not only the dawn of a new era but, inevitably, the end of an old one. The subtitle not only references the twilight of the 1920s, but also a changing of the guard in this entertainment franchise. In that sense, “Downton Abbey” may not really give its fans what they want, but what they have always had to accept in this epic saga: this time does not stop.
PG. In neighborhood theatres. Contains suggestive references, strong language, and mature thematic elements. 124 minutes.