Written by: Julian Fellowes
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith
Quite often stories and franchises hit their natural conclusion and end in a way that neatly wraps everything up in a bow. You would think there’s no way they could possibly continue even if they have a good reason. Except when the reason centers on the chance to make even more money and milk a property even more, then you know they’ll find a way. With all of the skepticism and cynicism that comes with Downton Abbey: A New Era, I must admit they got me again.
Following the marriage of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and his new bride, word arrives to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) that she’s set to inherit a villa in the south of France from an acquaintance she had many years ago. With the inquiry as to how she came in line to inherit it, the Crawleys head over to the villa to learn more while Mary (Michelle Dockery) allows for the opportunity to bring some income in for the estate by allowing a Hollywood production to be filmed there.
Going by how perfectly the 2019 Downton Abbey film placed what could be seen as a definitive ending for these characters, it proved to be surprising a follow-up film would exist. Most of these characters, after all, had their arcs completely wrapped up before the series ended, which made it questionable what they would have to do in these films, especially with there being such a wide array of characters. I had this same skepticism in the previous film, but once again Julian Fellows manages to prove me wrong. Sure, most of these characters do not get much to do, but the magic of the story and love tightly nestled between these figures simply allows me to roll with everything the narrative wants to throw and it creates this warm feeling that melts away any cynicism for why this film exists. Each of these characters feel so lived in and part of this grand family that I could follow their adventures forever with any future installments.
When it comes to the narrative, it splits the characters in two, those who head to France to get to the bottom of Lady Grantham’s relationship with the Marquis de Montmirail and those who stay behind to watch over the filmmaking guests as they use Downton Abbey as their set. It works in getting some characters out of their comfort zones in much hotter temperatures while also allowing the modern world to enter Downton Abbey in a way not seen before. The two stories have their own conflicts and wonderful resolutions and it all gets wrapped up exactly how one would assume if you watched any episode of Downton Abbey.
These changes add new characters who present novel ideas and challenges for these beloved characters. Each of them comes with their own iciness that quickly gets melted away by the love emanating from all of these characters, which really erodes any sense of real conflict occurring in these films. It’s become a bit of a theme for these characters and it’s what these films serve as an addendum to the finale of the series. It can be seen as a criticism as well how no one can quite jump into this film without any prior knowledge and fully comprehend everything occurring because of the prior knowledge being necessary for the film.
As one would expect with any Downton film, there’s plenty of wonderful costume design on display, and the journey to France provides a whole new style that can be utilized to provide a fit for the characters. It allows for a departure from the stuffier and darker clothes they typically wore in England and go for a cleaner look while spending their time on the French Riviera. Tag that along with the Hollywood wardrobe of the characters introduced in the filmmaking segment of the story and you have intriguing new additions to a property already known for its distinct costume design.
Did this film need to exist? Absolutely not, but Julian Fellows knows how to continue the story of these characters and makes me care deeply for them. Yes, it provided a moment that made me tear up, which is not necessarily hard but shows how great the characters continue to be in this overarching story. It adds a sense of finality to one of the characters but it would not surprise if they kept the gravy train flowing and continued to make a film, especially considering the title of the feature hinting at something more. At the very least the actors involved will continue to get a paycheck for their portrayal of the definitive characters of their career, which I certainly will not get mad at. All that matters is the stories work in bringing us back into this world and crafting a story worth caring about that gets received wonderfully in A New Era.