A New Era is no masterpiece, but it’s a far cozier and more fitting franchise send-off than its predecessor managed to be.
Downton Abbey: A New Era begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral; a fitting bookend considering that it was a death that set the whole story in motion when the poplar TV series debuted in 2010. Yet despite that seemingly sad note to end the story, A New Era is a much more laid back and charming affair than the film that preceded it, and is a much more fitting farewell to its beloved cast of characters. 2019’s Downton Abbey, a theatrical feature designed as a farewell to the popular series that had ended four years prior, was a curiously imperialist affair. Not only did it attempt to cram an entire season’s worth of drama into a two-hour film, it revealed the worst tendencies of creator and writer Julian Fellowes’ monarchist sensibilities, and turned the conflict of the show into an uncritical celebration of the British class system and the monarchy, in which its lower class characters’ greatest purpose and joy in life is to serve their wealthy masters. A New Era mostly dispenses with those attitudes in favor of a lower stakes conflict that allows Fellowes to at long last empower his characters to find some measure of happiness — often outside the walls of the eponymous manor house.
As a result, the film has a much more sentimental air than its predecessor, and those who aren’t already familiar with the show may find themselves a bit lost — an issue that Fellowes tries to overcorrect with his laborious expository dialogue and an almost laughable pre-film recap to remind us of the drama from the previous film, very little of which is particularly relevant to the events of this one. Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) has inherited a villa in the south of France under mysterious circumstances, sending Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) off to the Riviera to explore his new property and uncover secrets about his mother’s past. Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) remains behind to manage affairs at Downton, which has been overrun by a film crew shooting a new silent film, much to the chagrin of Violet and the ever-traditional butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). The film’s imperious star, Myrna Dagleish (Laura Haddock), is trying to hide a thick cockney accent as the era of sound is beating on the door, and her dashing leading man, Guy Dexter (Dominic West), has eyes for long-suffering gay butler, Barrow (Robert James-Collier).
If none of that makes sense to you, never fear! A New Era mostly manages to work on its own merits because it keeps the drama inconsequential, and its habit of having characters explain the plot to us at length seems exacerbated by Fellowes’ determination to wrap up every possible loose end. But fans of the show will likely find a lot to love in its cozy, warmhearted embrace. It’s the fitting send-off for these characters that the previous film wasn’t. And although Fellowes is clearly a traditionalist at heart (long since eschewing the acerbic class conflict he so brilliantly captured in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park), A New Era at long last allows the servants to find purpose outside of their class dynamic in a way that feels less like nostalgia for “the way things were” and more like a wistful and loving farewell to old friends. Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, The Art of Racing in the Rain) is certainly no stranger to this kind of treacly melodrama, but he handles A New Era with grace. Most likely already know how much mileage they’ll get out of a second Downton Abbey movie, but for longtime fans of the show, it’s an easygoing and bittersweet series finale. This may be fan service for the Masterpiece Theatre set, but it’s still more easily digestible than anything being done in the MCU or Star Wars universes right now. Downton knows its audience in a way that few franchises do, and A New Era gives fans exactly what they want in the most agreeable possible way.