“Hollywood is the ultimate dream factory … and I need dreams as much as the next man,” says Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) in Downton Abbey: A New Era. It’s a line that sums up the mission of the TV series’ second cinematic outing: to continue the “dream factory” tradition. And so the wishes of many a familiar character are granted over the course of two hours — along with plenty of drama.
Written and co-produced by creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), the sequel opens in 1928, with the wedding of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). It’s a chance to reunite major characters in their finery, further blurring the boundaries between the “upstairs” and “downstairs.”
The good news keeps coming: Not only has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) inherited a villa in the South of France, but a film crew is coming to make a movie at Downton Abbey — hence Mr Molesley’s excitement. He’s not the only one. Daisy (Sophie McShera) is beside herself at the thought of meeting real-life film stars, though when the glamorous Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) sashays into the Abbey, she’s in for a disappointment. Not only is this silent-film star terribly rude, but her voice is comically opposed to her on-screen image.
It’s an opportunity for broad, gentle comedy as well as a brief insight into the psyche of a woman under threat: The talkies are approaching, and the production is in danger. That it takes Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to suggest a way out of the problem is pushing the boundaries of credibility, but it enhances the enjoyable bond between her and the film’s director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy). And if you think a film-within-a-film is about as meta as Downton Abbey can get, look out for a cheeky little scene in France. Bumping into each other in a hat shop, butler Carson (Jim Carter) and Maud (Imelda Staunton) are mistaken for husband and wife: a wink to fans who know the actors are married in real life.
The script contrives to send half the Crawley family out to France, and these scenes — filmed in the Riviera during the pandemic — fulfil a similar brand of escapism to those in the UK. The “villa” is palatial, the parties fabulous and the costumes delightful, with designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins and team making the most of a change in climate. Carson is the only one who refuses to swap his uniform for linen, and his sweat mixes with a humorous insistence that he knows better than the French, and he must explain this to the staff out there. In English. The xenophobic Brit stereotype is hardly new, but it offers an old-fashioned contrast to the story’s more progressive moments, which touch on female empowerment and gay rights. Back at Downton, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) catches the eye of film star Guy Dexter (Dominic West, having a ball), and Lady Mary continues her journey toward matriarchy in the face of Violet’s declining health.
Despite strong turns all around, Maggie Smith continues to scene-steal from her evidently willing co-stars. “What a colourful life you lead,” she comments witheringly, after one of Myrna’s particularly gauche statements. And on the subject of acting? “I’d rather earn my living down a mine.” More poignant moments tug at the heartstrings effectively, and are swiftly followed by smiles: This is a film designed to cheer people up. The script even goes so far as to make a few veiled references to the pandemic, suggesting that the Downton residents are not the only ones who have lost loved ones and had a hard time.
With more plot turns than half a dozen episodes, A New Era crams a lot into its running time, and its manipulations can be quite transparent. But it’s hard to resent them when it so clearly achieves its mission. After all, as Molesley says: We all need dreams.