Friday, May 20, 2022


Opening today:

Downton Abbey: A New Era--The saga of the lives of Brit nobility and their servants at the titular fictitious pile of bricks was an ITV series from 2010 to 2015, then a feature in 2019, and now this sequel. I never watched the show, and while I had seen the earlier film I could barely remember a thing about it, just the impression that it was pleasantly sedate. So it was with no special excitement that I settled in for the sequel.

Thus this New Era, directed by Simon Curtis, was a nice surprise. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes has concocted twin storylines, both of which have a fairy-tale charm and both of which pay off with a gratifying sense of wish-fulfillment. Most of us could do with a happy ending right now, and this movie serves up a couple of elegant ones.

In the first strand, Crawley family matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) informs her astounded relations that she's been given a villa in the south of France by a passionate admirer from her youth who has passed on, and that she wishes to give the place to her great-granddaughter Sybil. Violet is past traveling, but the Frenchman's highly civil son (Jonathan Zaccai) invites the family to visit the place and get acquainted, much to the disgust of his mother (Nathalie Baye).

The other, livelier plotline has a film crew arriving to shoot a movie at Downton Abbey; the family reluctantly agrees to this indignity to finance a new roof for the house. It starts as a silent picture, but The Jazz Singer has just come out, so it becomes a talkie mid-shoot. What ensues is surprisingly similar to the plot of Singin' in the Rain, right down to a beautiful blonde silent star with an incongruously grating voice.

The regulars from the series, like Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Robert James-Collier, Samantha Bond, Phyllis Logan, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton and the beguiling Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, who keeps an eye on the film folks while her family is in France, are in solid form. One of the veterans from the series, Kevin Doyle as butler turned schoolteacher Mr. Molesley, gets a particularly marvelous payoff here; a cinephile, Molesley's rapture at being in proximity to moviemaking is funny, but it borders on moving as well.

The fun this time, however, is mostly from the new characters. As the film producer who understandably falls for Lady Mary, Hugh Dancy hits just the right quietly lovestruck note. Just as good are Dominic West as the jovial leading man of the movie and Laura Haddock as his breathtaking, covertly cockney leading lady.

Fellowes, who also triumphed this year with The Gilded Age on HBO, has so long been a skillful--and seemingly admiring--chronicler of the obscenely rich and those who derive their living from pampering them that it may be hard, watching Downton Abbey, to stifle your class outrage at times. At one point Violet, watching the film people at work, remarks "I'd rather earn my living down the mine!"

Drawing on a lifetime's experience as a hard-working actress, Maggie Smith delivers the line peerlessly. But even as she makes you laugh, you may not be able to suppress the thought, of the Dowager: yeah, spoken like some mega-rich jerk who never had to earn a living at all. Try ten minutes "down the mine" sometime and see if you still feel that way.

But the idyllic tone of A New Era wore me down; I couldn't maintain any indignation. Of course, the social system depicted here is grotesque and, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong. But so are the social systems approvingly depicted in, say, Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing, and that doesn't stop us from entering into and enjoying them. I'm not (remotely) putting Fellowes, brilliant though he is, in the same class as Shakespeare. But this movie does have the structure, and some of the pastoral flavor, of a Shakespearean comedy, with all the storylines resolving in joy.

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