Sometimes you go to the movies excited for something that will take you in unexpected directions and challenge you as a viewer. Other times, you go see Downton Abbey, a film whose appeal lies in how little it veers off the chosen path. Fans of the beloved period drama will likely be glad to spend a few more hours with their favorite characters as the saga of the Crawley family careens towards the 1930s, and the aristocrats get up to their own brand of low-stakes hijinks. Downton Abbey: A New Era does little to endear itself to new audiences – its story is predictable and doesn’t offer much genuine drama. But it succeeds in its purpose of serving as a comforting presence, reliable in its overwhelming familiarity (even if it might be much better suited for the small screen).
When we first reunite with the Crawley family, they seem to be negotiating a series of beginnings and ends. Tom (Allen Leech) has just married Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), and they start their new life together, finally carving out a place for themselves rather than having one foot in two different worlds. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is determined to rekindle her career as a journalist, feeling stifled by the responsibilities of motherhood and being a marchioness. And Mary (Michelle Dockery) finds herself serving as a liaison between the family and a film production that would like to use Downton Abbey as a shooting location, potentially opening up a new, much-needed revenue stream for the estate. The promise of the future seems to sparkle amidst the Roaring Twenties. But at the same time, there is a pall hanging over the family, and that is the declining health of the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), whose eventual death will truly signal the end of an era.
Even towards the end, however, there are still surprises. Violet learns that she has been bequeathed a villa in the south of France by a mysterious man from her past – a property she intends to leave to Tom and Sybil’s daughter so that she will be on more even footing with her cousins, all of whom stand to inherit great fortunes. There’s just one issue: This man’s widow and son may not be particularly eager to part with the villa. To smooth things over, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and assorted members of the family travel to France, only to learn that the situation may be more complicated than they expect.
The narrative in Downton Abbey: A New Era is split in two: Half of the family in France, digging into the Dowager Countess’s past, the other half at Downton overseeing a movie set fiasco that borrows liberally from Singin’ in the Rain. (With the introduction of sound to cinema, the leading lady with a screechy, unpolished voice must be dubbed over to save the picture.) If this was stretched out into an entire season, it might work better – here, it feels choppy, with only a moment or two spent in one locale before hastily cutting to the other. Neither storyline is, it’s sad to say, entirely worthy of the time dedicated to it.
There’s clearly an audience for more Downton Abbey content, and fans will likely be content to spend more time with the characters they’ve grown to love. But it’s disappointing that so little effort was dedicated to creating a plot that would genuinely engage viewers or, for that matter, challenge the talented cast they’ve assembled for the film. For the most part, it feels like everyone is simply going through the motions – and with such uninspired material, who can blame them?
Still, Downton Abbey has a certain magic that prevents it from falling too hard. We want the best for these characters, and having watched the early 20th century unfold with the Crawley family at the center of a rapidly changing world, we’re undeniably invested in their plight, regardless of whether or not they’re being written as well as they could be. If Downton Abbey: A New Era is a little lazy, it’s not maliciously so – if anything, it’s a pleasant midday nap on a Sunday afternoon when you didn’t get nearly as much done as you were hoping to. Warm, comforting, and just the tiniest bit disappointing.