It’s worth saying right off the bat that, if you love Downton Abbey, then its latest film outing – ominously but bafflingly subtitled A New Era – is exactly what you want it to be.
Julian Fellowes returns to the lives of the upstairs and downstairs ensembles of the eponymous country property at the end of the 1920s, looking in on all of them for a couple of hours of very gentle drama. If it’s your cup of tea, then Fellowes brews you an entire pot – served in immaculate china.
For non-fans though – a group in which I count myself – there’s very little here to enjoy. My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis replaces the previous film’s helmer Michael Engler in the director’s chair, but it’s still very much Fellowes steering the boat into much the same waters as usual. While 2019’s Downton film used a royal visit as a flimsy excuse for an over-arching plot, this one delivers two equally disposable arcs – neither of which boast enough drama to raise the pulse.
The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has been left a villa in the south of France by a recently deceased fella with whom she had a friendship decades ago, so the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) leads a small group of Crawleys to go and see what’s what in Europe. Meanwhile, a silent film director (Hugh Dancy) wants to use Downton as the location for his latest production. The talkies, though, have arrived and leading lady Myrna (Laura Haddock) must grapple with the fact she doesn’t have the voice for Hollywood. If that sounds like the plot of Singin’ in the Rain, it’s because it’s exactly the plot of Singin’ in the Rain.
Brazen rip-offs of all time movie classics aside, Downton Abbey: A New Era is as televisual as it’s possible for a film to be. The scenes are short, choppy and just stop abruptly in a way that might work on the small screen sandwiched between ad breaks, but leaves a two-hour movie lacking in any sort of momentum. Indeed, for the duration of the ponderous first act, I found myself desperately willing something, anything to happen. It’s mostly just an opportunity to be distracted by the fact the entire cast seems to have a full David Dickinson suntan before they even get on a boat to the Riviera.
Eventually, the machinations of the sort-of-plot get moving, with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) continuing the Singin’ in the Rain theft – it’s too beat-for-beat to qualify as a loving homage – while the Earl’s visit to France yields a handful of surprises. There’s more of a sense of structure to this film than its predecessor, which dealt almost entirely in unconnected vignettes, and that proves refreshing as the relatively breezy middle section chugs along. It’s desperately overlong and filled with dialogue so stilted and artificial it’s almost painful to listen to – at one point, Dancy is basically asked to read the Wikipedia page for the 1928 horror movie The Terror – but it’s not utterly miserable.
This is Sunday evening froth which seems ill at ease on the big screen and doesn’t have the tools to justify its presence there, refusing to shed its listless primetime feel. You almost expect a Phillip Schofield car ad to interrupt proceedings every 15 minutes or so.
With so many moving parts on a character level, nobody gets to stretch their acting muscles. Dockery gets the most to do and does a stellar job, though there’s never a jot of jeopardy to her character’s central dilemma, while Smith is as delectably cantankerous as she has always been in her role. The likes of Bonneville, Tuppence Middleton, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West are utterly wasted, with Jim Carter’s butler Carson only afforded the chance to shine when the script randomly throws him a segment of King Lear to growl through in his booming baritone.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is an interesting beast in that it’s an entirely neutral creation. It won’t lose any devoted fans, but nor will it gain any. It’s twee, inoffensive, commemorative tea towel Britishness designed solely for people who want to live in a world where even the most privileged among us are lovely folk. It’s conservatism with a small C designed to provide comfort and warmth for those for whom the C is very much capitalised.
Despite the promises of its subtitle, this feels very much like a logical endpoint for the Downton Abbey behemoth – a full stop at the end of its early 20th century fantasy. This time, it doesn’t even have the creative energy required to conjure its own plot. They could’ve at least given Hugh Bonneville the chance to dance with an umbrella. Now that would’ve been worth watching.