Film & Television

Familiar Faces (and Plotlines) in ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’

Does this sound familiar?

A production crew is busy filming a new silent movie, starring a popular romantic hunk and a blonde bombshell. Suddenly, things come screeching to a halt. Audiences, it turns out, aren’t satisfied with silent movies anymore, having had their appetites whetted by The Jazz Singer. “Talkies” are suddenly all the rage. In a desperate move to save the project, sound is added. But, alas, it turns out that the leading lady has a terrible speaking voice, greatly at odds with her glamorous onscreen (and up until now, blessedly silent) persona. All seems lost until the bright idea comes up to dub the actress’s lines, replacing them with someone else’s more melodious tones. Hooray for Hollywood, the picture is saved!

What if I told you that the familiar filmic scenario I’ve just described is not from Singin’ in the Rain and that the heroine of the hour isn’t Debbie Reynolds? 

It’s actually from the latest Downton Abbey movie and the voice behind the curtain belongs to none other than Lady Mary.

As her father, Lord Grantham would say, “Golly gumdrops! What a turn-up!”

On the one hand, this may be cinematic homage (doesn’t that sound better than “artistic adoption” or, worse, “theatrical theft”) of the highest order. On the other hand, Downton creator Julian Fellowes knows that virtually every person in every seat of every multiplex here or across the pond is ready to celebrate the familiar. We want to see the characters we love, in the settings we adore, living lives we can only dream of.

As per usual, Fellowes aims to please. And again, per usual, he succeeds. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era begins with a happy ending. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), widowed former chauffeur and now beloved Crawley son-in-law, marries Lucy Branson (Tuppence Middleton), illegitimate daughter of and now heir to Dowager Baroness Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). This will come as little surprise to those of us who saw them dancing together at the end of 2019’s first movie. 

Of course, the wedding is lavish (the bride’s 12-foot veil, antique lace that was sent to India for painstaking restoration, was recently featured in Vogue), but we move quickly past it as the film’s two parallel plots are introduced. Violet, the Dowager Countess (the inimitable Maggie Smith) has inherited a substantial piece of property from a late admirer. This raises some eyebrows.

Mary: You never thought to turn it down?

Violet: Do I look as if I’d turn down a villa in the South of France?

And, a moving picture company wants to film The Gambler at Downton, which raises any eyebrows left unraised. Practical Crawley sisters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael), who are getting along much better in this “new era,” realize that the producers are offering enough of a monetary incentive to repair the ancestral home’s leaky roof. The presence of movie people is thrilling to the staff (well, most of the staff; Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, Staunton’s real-life husband) is less than amused), but rather distasteful to the family. So, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), along with the newlyweds, Edith and husband Bertie, Marquess of Hexham (Harry Haden-Patton), Mr. Bates (Brendon Coyle), Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), and for some only vaguely explained reason, Mr. Carson head off to the Riviera, while the Dowager Countess takes to her bed.

At this point, we (like the actress herself in interviews) have to wonder just how old Violet is supposed to be. She was no spring chicken when the series began in 1912, and according to dialogue in the new movie, we’re heading into 1930. But, I digress.

Along the way, we enjoy scenes and subplots with series favorites: gentry Lord and Lady Merton (Douglas Reith and Penelope Wilton) and Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond), and servants Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), Daisy and Andy Parker (Sophie McShera and Michael Fox), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Bumbling Molesley (Kevin Doyle) turns out to have a talent for scriptwriting. And, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier) may have finally found a partner and the prospect of a happier life. Downton newcomers include The Gambler’s director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), who falls for Lady Mary, and stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West ) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock).

If the sheer number of characters confuses or if the plots feel a bit contrived, simply sit back and enjoy the spectacle of it all — from the gorgeous French villa to The Gambler’s equally gorgeous nineteenth century costumes. And, if you relished the Downton servants’ treasonous act of rebellion in the first movie (they tricked/locked up/blackmailed the royal household’s staff so they could wait on the king and queen themselves), you’ll appreciate an incredibly silly development that allows them all to sit at the Abbey’s formal dining table, rather than set, serve, or clear it.

Fellowes is keenly aware of what his fans are hoping for. So, loose ends are neatly tied up with a long-awaited proposal, an optimistic diagnosis, a shockingly un-shocking confession, some American vocal coaching, and myriad other satisfying scenes. And, although I found it a bit difficult to get past the similarities to Singin’ in the Rain while I was watching the film, I learned later that Fellowes drew inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 Blackmail, Britain’s first talkie, in which a lead actress had to be overdubbed. Perhaps Gene Kelly and company did too.

What all of the formidable cast and crew and costumes come down to is this …

If you are not a Downton Abbey fan, if you find the emotional excesses of England’s upper class irritating, or if you are wont to call a soap opera … well .. a soap opera, do yourself a favor and skip Downton Abbey: A New Era

If, however, you have missed the Crawley households, both upstairs and down, and the privileged, peaceful lives they lead (interrupted only by — hmmm, let’s see — World War I, the Spanish Flu, wrongful convictions for murder, illegitimate children, fatal car accidents, royal visits, late night fires, and countless cups of tea), then by all means, clear your calendar and catch the very next showing. 

You may roll your eyes once or twice (or considerably more), but you will not be disappointed.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is currently showing in movie theatres.

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