Just once I would like to enter a room full of my family and familiars and say, “A complication,” when plans have hit a snag. This is exactly what Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) announces in an early scene in the new Downton Abbey movie, and it’s indicative of how writer/creator Julian Fellowes approaches plotting.
During the course of the film, when small vexations arise for both the upstairs aristocrats and the downstairs staff, they’re never strong enough to become plotlines that propel the action, or even to matter much to the characters themselves. It’s as if they all know it will turn out alright in the end, which lends the viewer of such complications a free pass to not take any of the proceedings seriously. In other words, watch “Downton Abbey: A New Era” in the serene knowledge that nothing too awful will happen to these beloved characters, nothing too life-altering, just a few annoyances along the way to a relatively happy ending.
The series “Downton Abbey” was written in much the same way. Over six seasons, the titled Crawley family and their servants dealt with many societal issues and historical events, such as premarital sex and World War I, but Mr. Fellowes was able to shelter his characters from experiencing the worst. Exceptions occurred, of course, as when the youngest daughter, Sybil, died after childbirth in season three and when lady’s maid, Anna, was raped the next season. Overall, though, fans knew what to expect: a sitcom-y soap opera with an “Upstairs, Downstairs” structure, witty banter, gorgeous sets and costumes, and the occasional bit of historical relevance.
The plot of the first “Downton” movie from 2019 hinged on a fictional visit to the famed country estate by the king, George V, and Queen Mary. While it wasn’t the most exhilarating of story lines, Mr. Fellowes did furnish some adjunct subplots such as a royal assassination attempt and the king’s valet getting the household’s head butler out of a potentially ruinous situation when he’s caught at an underground gay bar.
The new film gives the Crawley extended family and their attendants two scenarios to contend with: to visit a villa in southern France that the Dowager Countess has mysteriously inherited, and to host a film production crew as they make a movie within the eponymous mansion. The French villa plot is barely formulated, with the location shooting vague and uninspiring and the hinted-at clash of cultures between the British and French never arriving. Even the great French actress Nathalie Baye is given nothing to do but huff and puff.
The moviemaking plot is where “A New Era” gets some much-needed spark. One can’t help but smile when the Dowager (Maggie Smith) and Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) decide to watch the cast and crew’s process, only to be frightened when the director yells, “Action.” Best of all is when Kevin Doyle’s Mr. Molesley, a long-suffering character whom Dickens would have loved, envisions and acts out — to the astonished eyes of the movie’s director (Hugh Dancy) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) — how a certain scene should be filmed, illustrating the joys of motion pictures with just great acting and sharp dialogue.
A couple of times this “silver screen” scenario feels like a mini-lecture in the history of early cinema, but the Molesley scene and others unrelated to the movie-within-the-movie bring to life why we bother with “Downton Abbey” at all. Like with any entertainment, there are many contrivances that bring characters together and move what plot there is along. Sometimes these unbelievable circumstances present director Simon Curtis with awkward choices to make when it comes to staging the actors and bow-tying together a coherent narrative. Yet most viewers won’t care as long as we get scenes in which the downstairs staff gets to have some fun and Maggie Smith says something biting.
Speaking of Dame Maggie Smith, Mr. Fellowes does finally grant her an exit from the “Downton” saga, something for which the actress has long expressed a wish. Although it ends the movie on a somewhat sad note, the viewer leaves knowing that the Crawley family and its loyal staff will continue on and even prevail, with no major complications to muck it all up. At least not until 1929’s stock market crash or World War II.