The popular television series and 2019 film delivered a preserved-in-amber glimpse at melodramatic “Upstairs, Downstairs” classism mixed with some laughs, a touch of sentimentality and expertly delivered barbs from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Fans embraced the illusion of high-mindedness and the fantasy of life at the mansion.
For enthusiasts, a return to Downtown is a creature comfort, like a cup of hot tea with a warm crumpet. You don’t have it often, but when you do, you want it to taste exactly the same as it always has. The presentation can be tweaked, but the essence must be untouched.
Director Simon Curtis and writer Julian Fellows, seem to understand what fans expect, and deliver. It may be predictable, but narrative complacency is part of its appeal for folks who spent six seasons on television getting to know these characters.
The story begins in 1929 as the Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a beautiful villa on the Cotes d’Azur from a long-ago admirer. The family, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), Tom (Allen Leech), Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) and the ever-dutiful Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) pack up there best and head to the South of France. “They better be warned,” says Mr. Carson, “the British are coming.”
Once there, a mysterious locket appears to hold the key to a long-withheld family secret and a decades-old “idyllic interlude.”
Meanwhile back at Downton Abbey, an expensive roof repair convinces Lord Grantham to allow a film crew to shoot in the grand old mansion in return for a large rental fee. The downstairs workers are excited but Grantham’s enthusiasm is muted. “I think it’s a horrible idea,” he snorts. “Actresses plastered in make-up and actors just plastered.” Still, the roof is leaking and soon the house’s grand rooms are overrun by a film crew, including director Jack Barber (Hugh Danccy) and his stars, matinee idol Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and the glamorous Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). “We got through the war,” groans the Dowager Countess. “We can get through this.”
Later in the film the Dowager Countess says that life is about “getting past the unexpected.” That may apply to life at the Abbey, but it certainly doesn’t apply to the movie because there is nothing unexpected about anything that happens in the film’s two-hour running time. A better title may have been “Downton Abbey: Fan Service,” because it is a crowd-pleasing slow simmering stew of favorite ingredients, with no extra spice or flavorings. It is what the fans expect, no more but sometimes less.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a plucky, stiff upper lipped movie meant for devotees who will likely excuse the filmmaking, which is as dry as a day-old scone at tea time.