June 6, 2022

“Downton Abbey” Ushers in a New Era in an Emotionally Effective Sequel (Review)

In the first Downton Abbey film, the Crawleys’ former butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) says that “a hundred years from now, Downton will still be standing, and the Crawleys will still be here.” That promise all but ensures a limitless future for Downton itself, and the possibilities of new stories for years to come. Even after its natural ending on television, its characters and storylines have found new lives on the big screen, which is no easy feat to accomplish.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

After a pandemic-related delay, a sequel to the 2019 film (itself a follow-up to the successful ITV series) is finally here. Downton Abbey: A New Era picks up one year after the royal visit from the previous film, and not much has changed. True to Carson’s dogma, Downton is still standing and the Crawleys are still there — but that doesn’t stop a variety of factors from threatening to tear the family apart.

If I were to elaborate on every character from A New Era and their independent arcs, this review would never end. Instead, I will begin with a confession: prior to watching the 2019 film, I had never seen the show. With the assistance of a ten-minute recap, I was thrown into the deep end of Downton, trying to keep up with a Game of Thrones-level main character count and having to remember how they’re all connected. To disclose even further, I wasn’t even positively sure about many of those relationships until A New Era arrived.

While 2019’s Downton Abbey concerned itself with thin connecting threads and vignettes centered around the royal visit, A New Era seems more confident about the transition to the silver screen. Nearly every character is given a more important role to play in the story, and by the film’s end many of them are not in the same position they were at the start. There are real stakes here, and though they may not be on the world-ending level that typifies modern superhero movies, they are emotional on a level that not many blockbusters can muster.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

In addition to the smaller character-oriented storylines, the screen time in A New Era can be split into two overarching and intertwining narratives. First, in keeping with the film’s early 21st century setting, the folks at Downton are approached to host a silent film shoot in their historic castle home. Complications turn the silent film into a “talkie,” but there is a deeper-seated problem in the transition that is addressed in a very familiar way. At the same time, about half the cast heads off to a villa in the south of France, recently left to Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) after its previous owner’s death. It turns out that Violet and the previous owner, the Marquis de Montmirail, spent a week together in their younger years — apparently, it was memorable enough for the Marquis to leave the villa to Violet instead of his own family. Appropriately, further complications arise.

A New Era isn’t just about changes for the residents of Downton. Time is passing (both in our world and in theirs), exemplified by the stark changes in the film industry that affects characters on that side of the story. As time passes, more of these changes will occur, and I appreciate that A New Era branches out beyond Downton to give us a sense of what’s happening in the larger world. Lest we forget, that’s how the show began — the sinking of the Titanic was the series’ inciting incident.

Regarding what’s ahead, there’s a certain amount of dramatic irony: we’re intimately familiar with the history they’re about to experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if Downton Abbey eventually reaches the 1930s and we get a backseat view of the Second World War, specifically in how it affects our main characters. It’s a time period that’s been covered extensively in every medium, but there’s still value in witnessing another side of it — this one fictionalized, featuring the characters we know and love.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

I believe that Carson is correct. We will be getting more Downton Abbey stories for years to come, with the possibility of a next generation showcase somewhere down the line. A New Era feels like a proper film rather than a television continuation, and if its reception is any indication, it will indeed usher in a new era for its characters and world.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is in theaters now.

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