To my surprise, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” appeared on the marquee of the single-film theatre in my little town over the weekend. I’m a big “Downton” fan and was vaguely aware that another film was in the works, but I wasn’t eagerly awaiting it, as it seemed all the loose ends of the six-season television series had been tidily tied up in the 2019 film. Nonetheless, when the Crawleys come to town, you go and pay them a visit.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Distilled, the plot of “A New Era,” like so much of our modern era, is all about sex: it centers on whether the austere dowager countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, had a French fling several decades prior that produced Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley. (This would make him illegitimate and not the rightful heir to the Downton estate.)
A secondary storyline involves an ongoing will-she-or-won’t-she tension between a seductive movie director shooting a film at Downton while Lady Mary’s husband is off somewhere pursuing his true love — car racing. A sub-sub-plot concerns the butler, Thomas Barrow, and whether he’ll finally find lasting love in a homosexual relationship with a Hollywood star playing the lead in the movie for which the Abbey is the setting.
Despite such a risqué premise, the story unfolds in a mild manner that borders on boring. As the movie begins, the audience is brought up to speed — it’s 1928 now — with a reintroduction to our old friends.
Tom Branson, the chauffeur-turned-Downton estate manager and widower of Lady Sybil, marries Lucy, a former maid, in the opening scene. It’s revealed that Daisy, who has been promoted from kitchen maid to Mrs. Patmore’s assistant cook, is happily hitched to a footman. The presence of several children — I’d forgotten John Bates and Anna welcomed a son a few years before — in varying stages of growing up, further alludes to an intervening period of familial health, harmony, and happiness.
It then comes to light that the Dowager has inherited a villa in the South of France from a man the rest of the Crawleys have never heard of. At the same time, a movie production company asks to pay to use the estate as the backdrop of a silent film, and since Downton needs a new roof and is not in the position to be turning away money, Lady Mary agrees. Conveniently, the family is invited to the villa by the aristocratic French family who thought they owned it, and Mary sends them away to avoid the movie-making spectacle the older and more fastidious members of the household would find distasteful.
The plots move along at a mellow speed, with nothing particularly exciting, poignant, or suspenseful happening until the very end, when the best character of the whole series passes gracefully to eternity.
In fact, at parts, the events are so mundane that I found my eyes and mind straying from the speaking character off to some decorative detail in the background (Mrs. Patmore’s copper cookware collection, anyone?!), or focused on a particularly pristine piece of clothing (does Lady Mary ever wear the same gown twice?). No one was wondering, for example, whether Lady Edith would return to her writing career after a child-bearing hiatus, but her uninteresting musings on the subject allow the viewer a break to delight vicariously in the extravagance of a multi-course alfresco meal along the French Riviera during the Roaring Twenties.
“‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ does not, in fact, represent a new era,” proclaims the headline of an NPR article calling for the “Downton” series to end. There is not enough fresh drama, some critics argue, to keep us interested and coming back for more.
But I would argue that’s the point of Julian Fellowes’ latest iteration of “Downton.” As the world ushers in new ideas about manners, customs, and morality, the Crawleys (and Carson!) stand firm against the tide, maintaining tradition and propriety in the face of modernism, which seeks to destroy what has long been upheld as true and good and beautiful in favor of lax standards pursued for the sake of “liberation” and pleasure.
In an age dominated by desperate social media attention-seekers, it’s refreshing to be transported to a time when, as the dowager countess expresses in her signature arch tone, publicity was still considered something to be avoided. Perhaps that’s the root of our problem: rather than relish what is simple and tried and true, we feel the need to rebel for the sake of stimulation because if there is no change, there is no progress, or something.
What “Downton” offers us, and the reason the series has been such a success, is a comforting retreat to a world where virtue predictably triumphs. It turns out the dowager did not behave promiscuously all those years ago. And when tempted by the advances of the handsome director, Lady Mary declines, explaining she is still “too old-fashioned to believe what I want is all that matters.” Even Thomas’s gratuitous gay scenes are mercifully presented subtly.
All in all, the movie presents a refreshing contrast to the contemporary “do what makes you feel good” mantra, the consequences of which bring about so much misery. It’s also a soothing refuge from a world where “Khloe Kardashian pokes fun at sister Kim over private parts… after older sibling revealed she widened ‘vagina area’ of the SKIMS bodysuit for her” is a real, run-of-the-mill headline of a widely read online newspaper.
The latest “Downton” movie feels more like a family reunion than thrilling soap opera, and that’s just fine. It’s a low-key checking-in with familiar faces, wholesome entertainment dripping in aesthetic splendor, and an enjoyable alternative to the over-sexualized, violent, frenetic offerings typical of the silver screen.
You can now welcome the Crawleys to tea in your own home, as “A New Era” was just made available for screening on Peacock.