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Downton Abbey: A New Era review

A birth, a death, a proposal, and a spot of disputed paternity: BRIAN VINER reviews Downton Abbey: A New Era

Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG) 

Rating:

Verdict: The gift that keeps on giving

Back To The Future, Eyes Wide Shut and True Lies are fine examples of cinematic oxymorons – film titles which contradict themselves. And joining them last night was Downton Abbey: A New Era, which predictably plunges us straight back into Downton Abbey, the old era.

Downton’s creator Julian Fellowes did not get where he is today (the House of Lords, for starters) by denying his fans what they expect. So the new film, the second big-screen spin-off after 2019’s Downton Abbey, positively bursts with all our favourite ingredients, not least the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) firing acid barbs through pursed lips, which is easier said than done.

Downton Abbey: A New Era, the second big-screen spin-off after 2019’s Downton Abbey, positively bursts with all our favourite ingredients

The ‘new era’ bit concerns the arrival of the movies. It is 1928, and a dishy director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), wants to hire the stately pile to make a silent film. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) more or less declares that such commercial vulgarity will only happen over his dead body. Among the more ruthless of us at last night’s glitzy world premiere in London, this kindled the fleeting hope that his lordship might be about to expire in spectacular fashion, perhaps of an overdose of kedgeree. Downton has always done death rather well.

But no. A hefty cheque helps to change Lord Grantham’s mind, along with bossy Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who is still in the process of dragging the estate into the 20th century and realises the film money might ‘bring the house up to snuff’. Coincidentally, just in front of me at the cinema in Leicester Square were Lord and Lady Carnarvon, owners of the real-life Downton, Highclere Castle. That storyline must have struck a chord.

Below stairs, admirable Anna (Joanne Frogatt) and dopey Daisy (Sophie McShera) are both quivering with excitement at the prospect of seeing matinee idol Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and screen siren Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock, having more fun than anyone) up close and personal.

The Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) fires acid barbs through pursed lips, which is easier said than done

Below stairs, dopey Daisy (Sophie McShera) is quivering with excitement at the prospect of seeing matinee idol Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and screen siren Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock

It has never taken much to make Daisy quiver. A new valet in tight breeches, Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) allowing her to go to the shops on her own … these are the things that have always made Daisy’s day. But she is less of a dope now she is married to Andy the jug-eared footman (Michael Fox). Could Daisy even have a future in moving pictures? Probably not. But, against all the odds, nice Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) might.

As always with Downton, the suspicion mounts that Fellowes has found out from Wikipedia what was happening at the time and shaped his narrative accordingly. So, with the South of France in the late 1920s becoming increasingly popular with the British aristocracy, off we duly pop to the Riviera, where old Lady G has controversially been left a handsome villa by a Frenchman, with whom she enjoyed an idyllic week back in 1864.

The French sojourn allows Mr Carson (Jim Carter), dragged out of retirement, to beetle his brows more than ever in an outbreak of Francophobia, but really it is back at Downton where the more entertaining stuff is going on. The silent film is in trouble, you see, because the talkies have just arrived. Will the dishy director save the project himself? Of course not. He needs the help of Lady Mary and the servants. Meanwhile, Mr Barrow the butler (Robert James-Collier), who had a personality transplant some time ago and is no longer a rotter, is still grappling with his sexuality. But there is salvation in unexpected form.

With the South of France in the late 1920s becoming increasingly popular with the British aristocracy, off we duly pop to the Riviera

All this unfolds in amiable Downton style, ably directed by Simon Curtis, although regrettably he can’t stop Lady Cora simpering (despite being married to Elizabeth McGovern, who plays her). There’s a birth, a death, a proposal, and a spot of disputed paternity, with all loose ends tied as neatly as if Mr Carson himself had attended to them. There are also some genuine chuckles, and a few shamelessly derivative storylines, with especially firm nods to My Fair Lady and Singin’ in the Rain.

So what now for the Downton saga? My own hope is that Fellowes will be brave enough next time – and there will surely be a next time – to embrace a genuinely new era and let the Crawleys flog their ancestral home to the nation. After all, Downton is the gift that keeps on giving; how apt it would be to give it a National Trust gift shop.

Downton Abbey: A New Era goes on general release on Friday

Meanwhile, Mr Barrow the butler (Robert James-Collier), who had a personality transplant some time ago and is no longer a rotter, is still grappling with his sexuality

Downton Abbey: A New Era – What the critics are saying…

THE GUARDIAN 

Rating:

Peter Bradshaw writes: ‘The second – and hopefully last – film spun off from Julian Fellowes’s successful TV series is as hammy, silly, and undeniably entertaining as ever… It is all cheerfully risible although heading for a note of seriousness to compare with what Wagner was aiming for with Siegfried’s Funeral March.’

The luxury soap opera’s second feature-length spin-off ticks all the right boxes 

THE TELEGRAPH 

Rating:

Robbie Collin writes: ‘The luxury soap opera’s second feature-length spin-off ticks all the right boxes… Like the first Downton Abbey film, A New Era is built like easy television: Downton itself bustles divertingly, while the French scenes radiate a nourishingly escapist cream and cerulean glow.’

DAILY MAIL

Brian Viner writes: ‘There’s a birth, a death, a proposal, and a spot of disputed paternity, with all loose ends tied as neatly as if Mr Carson himself had attended to them. There are also some genuine chuckles, and a few shamelessly derivative storylines…Downton is the gift that keeps on giving.’ 

VARIETY 

Peter Debruge writes: ‘Fellowes gives us an affectionate group hug, which is effectively what these encore visits amount to.’

DEADLINE

Anna Smith writes: ‘With more plot turns than half a dozen episodes, A New Era crams a lot into its running time, and its manipulations can be quite transparent. But it’s hard to resent them when it so clearly achieves its mission. After all, as Molesley says: We all need dreams.’ 

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

David Rooney writes: ‘Despite the promise of sweeping change in its title, A New Era is very much more of the same, which will be just fine with devotees of the long-running PBS hit.’

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