I first came to Julian Fellowes’s charming television show in 2020, stuck in lockdown with my now-fiancee wanting to show me some of her favorite shows. Six seasons of binging later I was in love with the world, its cast, and its ability to just be so very nice (except for that one storyline in season 4/5…that was brutal). Each episode has a conflict, often mild, and they are generally resolved by a coming together of rich and poor, old and new, and everyone is deep down just so very kind. Fellowes created a show that is all at once a mug of warm tea, a flute of champagne, and once in a while a shot of very cheap bourbon just to mix things up. When the show ended on Christmas Day of 2015 many fans were sad to see it go, but were treated to a feature film four years later that felt very much like a bow being tied on a package, sealing it away.
So what next? They open the package.
Set in 1928, Downton Abbey: A New Era is as much an exploratory film as well as it is a gentle one. It is revealed to Lord Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) Crawley by his mother, Dowager Countess Violet Grantham (Maggie Smith, who continues to be the MVP of this franchise), that she was left a villa by a former French fling and that she wants to bequeath it to her great-granddaughter. This is all happening while a film production company, led by director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), is preparing to shoot a film at Downton. Lord Grantham is unsettled by this, but his headstrong daughter/manager of the estate Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) insists that the income is needed to fix the Abbey’s leaking roof. When an invitation from the villa’s current residents, the Marquis de Montmirall (Jonathan Zaccaï) and his mother (Nathalie Baye), invite the Crawleys to the villa to hand it over they are all too happy. The Lord and Lady take their newly re-married son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech reprising a role that has always quietly been one of my favorites in the series), their daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), and former Downton Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to check out the new digs while Mary stays behind to oversee the filming process.
Look, I’m in the pocket for this kind of thing. I love the show and while I see some slight missteps in the film the overwhelming sensation of “that’s just so very nice” is maddeningly hard to shake. The cast is rather large and represents multiple walks of life, but served and servant alike walk the same path in this world. Downton is a pocket universe where the elite treasure the working class in their lives and get involved with their day-to-day drama as much as the penguin-suited staff offer advice and assistance to their superiors without hesitation. Everyone fulfills their roles and is so very charming to each other. I live in a world where no wealthy elite is going to truly care if one of their servants gets engaged, so I can’t help but feel touched when the entire household breaks into joyous smiles (the word “finally” barely contained behind them) as they overhear a proposal. The transition of the villa isn’t without drama, but the gentle and sweet resolution to the issue winds up being one of the nicest things to grace a film in quite some time. Heck, they even manage to work some romantic tension into the film for a character whose husband couldn’t be there because his actor was unfortunately scheduled to be elsewhere. It’s many a delight, often quietly fraught, and mostly just touching.
In other words, just sit back and chill. I needed this, damnit.
Is Downton truly entering a new era? Time will tell, but for now we’re simply left with a transitional film. Lady Mary’s marriage isn’t perfect, the elder members of the Crawley family are reminded that time is coming for them whether they like it or not, and the younger members of the family haven’t aged enough to truly be introduced as fully-realized characters yet. The cast is so large that not everyone is going to get a moment to shine (I’m delighted that they created a great storyline for Thomas Barrow, but I need more of Mr. and Mrs. Bates ASAP). These things need to be addressed (the absence of Matthew Goode is staggering, and he skipped this because he was contractually trapped on the set of The Offer), but I’m pleased with what we got this time around. I laughed, I cried (my fiancee sobbed), and I got exactly what I wanted for Fellowes’s world. Would I be interested in more from this wonderful franchise? You bet your ass, and I’ll be there on opening day for the potential third film.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is currently playing in theatres.