“Times change, and we must change with them,” mousy maid Baxter declares early in Downton Abbey: A New Era. Baxter is the third and least duplicitous of the lady’s maids who’ve attended to Cora Crawley since Downton Abbey began; she’s also the latest in a long line of characters who’ve advocated for a different way of doing things, usually over the objections of frowning butlers or lords who pine for Victorian times. Agents of change have always had it hard within the world of Downton: They die in car crashes or in childbirth, or discover that upon further reflection they could get used to being rich and pampered. Change has also been scarce behind the scenes, where series creator Julian Fellowes has soloed every script throughout the years. Downton has always been about the end of an era of great houses and expansive downstairs staffs, but the title of the franchise’s new film promises a shakeup. So has Fellowes finally handed over the reins? Is A New Era a reboot that follows a future generation of Crawleys in the Swinging ’60s?
Fellowes reprises his customary role as sole screenwriter, and his script doesn’t fast-forward far. Only a year has passed in Downton time since we last caught up with the Crawley clan, and the gang’s all here, from Maggie Smith to the footmen, maids, and doctors. The new installment, a sequel to the 2019 film that itself served as a sequel to the ITV/PBS series that ran from 2010 to 2015, follows a formula that, to the relief of its fans, has hardly changed at all. The first season of the series was set in 1912, and this movie takes us up to 1928. But 12 years have passed in the real world since Downton debuted, which means that though they’ve weathered a world war, the weakening of the aristocracy, and the arrivals of electricity and the telephone, the Crawleys have barely gained ground on the present day. “The modern world comes to Downton,” Elizabeth McGovern’s Cora says in A New Era, but the Crawleys are forever a century or so behind. Just where we want them.
The first movie made almost $200 million on a $13 million budget, which all but guaranteed a sequel if the principals could be convinced to return. Clearly they could, and thus the Downton-industrial complex produced another warm-and-fuzzy-feeling trip to Highclere Castle, directed by Downton newcomer Simon Curtis (who’s married to McGovern). For longtime followers of the franchise, Downton films are like low-stakes, comforting family reunions, staged for no other reason than that it’s nice to see some old faces again. Look how big Sybbie has gotten! Aw, Andy and Daisy seem so happy. What’s new with you, Mr. Molesley?
To be clear, I support any excuse to spend more time in the company of the Crawleys and their hired help, soapy and staid as their largely carefree affairs may be. Technically, there is a modicum of conflict undergirding A New Era. Namely, Downton’s roof is leaking, forcing the staff to—gasp—place wash basins in the attic to catch the drips. Yes, times are tough. “We don’t have to talk about money,” Lord Grantham sputters, but funds must be found for overdue upkeep. Ladies Mary and Edith propose a solution that smacks of the end times to Lord Grantham, Carson, and Co.: Allow a silent-film production to use Downton for a location shoot.
This part of the plot borrows heavily from real life: Downton’s rundown roof mirrors Highclere’s state of disrepair before an influx of Downton dollars refilled the Carnarvon coffers. It also steals from Singin’ in the Rain, with newcomers Dominic West and Laura Haddock playing the Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont roles, respectively, and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) stepping in, Kathy Selden-style, to do overdubs when the silent movie is converted into a talkie. Opening Downton’s doors to landless riffraff like West’s Guy Dexter, Haddock’s Myrna Dalgleish, and Hugh Dancy’s director Jack Barber is almost more than the mansion’s fuddy-duddiest’s residents can grin and bear, but as Smith’s Violet Crawley remarks, “We got through the war, we can get through this.”
Fortunately, most of the Crawleys are spared front-row seats to the indignity of a home infested by film crews by the other development that drives A New Era: Smith’s beloved dowager countess has unexpectedly been bequeathed a villa in the South of France in the will of a former flame. Ah, the hassle of having to manage a new villa. A solution suggests itself to the audience: Sell the villa and repair the roof! But then the problems (such as they are) would be solved and there wouldn’t be a reason for a field trip to Toulon’s Villa Rockapella Rocabella, or for the rest of the film’s major and minor crises, which range in descending order of seriousness from multiple potentially fatal illnesses, to Lord Grantham’s worries that he may have been born out of wedlock to (horror of horrors) a French father, to Carson getting seasick and struggling to find something formal yet seasonable to wear in warm weather.
Like the rebel-turned-establishmentarian Tom Branson, whom Maud Bagshaw describes as a “leopard who has successfully changed his spots,” Fellowes has ported his franchise faithfully from small screen to big. Even more so than its predecessor, though, A New Era strains beneath the weight of that transition. Its overstuffed story crams a season’s worth of plot lines into two hours, and the film’s frequent transitions across the Channel only reinforce the impression of frantic, fan-servicey plate-spinning. Fellowes has his hands full with The Gilded Age and other projects, so a film every few years is the most fans can hope for from Downton. As such, each new edition of Downton must make room for every character whether they have a real reason to be there or not. Some C, D, and E plots read like ways to cross off character beats on an IMDb bingo card: Carson being dispatched to France just to spare him from the film crew’s “mob rule”; Lady Edith trying to balance being both a chatelaine and a journalist; Andy and Daisy scheming how to hook up in private.
The only notable absentee is Mary’s husband Henry Talbot, a consequence of Matthew Goode’s scheduling conflicts; “Marriage is a novel, not a short story,” Mary says, but her husband doesn’t appear on any pages here. (Neither, for that matter, does any character of color, save for a briefly glimpsed jazz band—a tokenistic solution to the series’ lily-white character roster that Fellowes has used before.) Talbot isn’t much missed, as he’s ably replaced by the possibility of a dalliance with Dancy, which forces Mary into the same sort of temptation that her grandmother faced decades earlier. The bond between Violet and Mary, whose mutual senses of duty to Downton span generations, is the foundation on which the film’s humor and hijinks rest; Hugh Bonneville may have thought the 87-year-old Smith’s iconic character would die between films, but it wouldn’t have done for the dowager to disappear off screen.
As a dubious Lord Grantham says, “It seems very sentimental to me.” And so it is. But to those who’ve been on board for six seasons and two movies, the sight of Highclere and the sound of those stirring strings makes these sporadic interludes at Downton as eagerly awaited and nostalgia-tinted as a trip to Hogwarts or Tatooine. A New Era delivers several vintage dowager putdowns; a few bang-up bon mots about the French; a tender Mary-Carson scene; and emotional payoffs for supporting players who’ve waited a while for their happy endings, such as Barrow, Molesley, and Mrs. Patmore. It also offers some meaningful commentary on the magic and mundanity of moviemaking. And although the dowager dismisses the medium with a withering “I’d rather earn my living down a mine,” the film produced at Downton proves transformative for Molesley, who—like Fellowes when he started his screenwriting career—discovers a vocation fairly late in life.
That titular new era isn’t entirely false advertising: Some seismic change, or what passes for it on Downton, does occur. At no point, however, will viewers feel as if they’ve “been transported to a different planet,” to use the dowager’s words as she compares the England of her youth to that of her dotage. More importantly, perhaps, this serving of Downton indulgence doesn’t preclude more sequels to come, even though it would work as a coda. The cast is probably too deep for any single departure to leave an irreparable hole in the roof of the franchise, and the only leaks in the theater were located at the corners of my eyes in some of those sentimental moments. (If this means I have the soul of a 70-year-old Brit, so be it.)
Life, Violet reflects, is “getting past the unexpected, and perhaps learning from it.” There’s little in A New Era that isn’t expected, but there’s plenty of life nonetheless. A New Era name-checks Fitzgerald, but Fellowes is the modern master of convincing viewers to be borne back ceaselessly into the past. As Cora concludes, “Individual Crawleys come and go, but the family lives on.” So long as the box-office figures stay strong and Fellowes is willing to take up his pen to pump out more melodrama, Downton’s multimedia dynasty need not be deposed. But if this is the end, then Downton died the way anyone who still follows the franchise would have wanted it to: exactly as it lived.