Loads of smart dialogue, well-drawn characters dominate action, plot in 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'

  • Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), right, keeps her rapier wit sharpened with Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) in "Downton Abbey: A New Era."

    Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), right, keeps her rapier wit sharpened with Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) in "Downton Abbey: A New Era." Courtesy of Focus Features

 
 
Updated 5/19/2022 12:39 PM

"Downton Abbey: A New Era" - ★ ★ ★

Maggie Smith still gets all the killer lines.

 

The sharpest element in six seasons of the BBC TV series "Downton Abbey" (and its 2019 cinematic stand-alone feature) has always been the razor wit of Smith's popular Violet Crawley, whose casually crafted caustic criticisms came camouflaged as canny conversation.

In "Downton Abbey: A New Era," she turns her curmudgeonly cutlass on a newfangled invention called "sound movies" by quipping: "I should have thought the best thing about motion pictures is that you can't hear them!"

She adds: "Be even better if you can't see them, either!"

Had Hugh Grant been in the cast, the film's subtitle could read "One Wedding and a Funeral," as those two significant events bookend this feature, gamely directed by Simon Curtis of "My Week With Marilyn" fame.

The storyline continues the series' symbiotic relationship between the aristocracy and working classes of Downton Abbey, a fictional post-Edwardian-era Yorkshire country estate where the upper-class Crawley family and their domestic staffers must simultaneously deal with two major events and a conspicuous reference to the classic musical "Singin' in the Rain."

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First, Violet announces that she is the unexpected inheritor of a posh villa in the south of France, bequeathed to her by an old flame she left burning 60 years ago.

Newlyweds Tom and Lucy Branson (Allen Leech and Tuppence Middleton) start the New Era of "Downton Abbey" off with a new life.
Newlyweds Tom and Lucy Branson (Allen Leech and Tuppence Middleton) start the New Era of "Downton Abbey" off with a new life. - Courtesy of Focus Features

His miffed widow (French actress Nathalie Baye) challenges the legality of the will, prompting Violet to dispatch son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), granddaughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), old-school ex-butler Carson (Jim Carter) and a few others to France to iron things out.

Second, an ambiguous silent movie director named Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) wants to rent the visually stunning Abbey to shoot his new film. He offers lots of cash.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Robert strenuously objects to this vulgar enterprise.

"Actresses plastered with makeup? Actors just plastered?" he frets loudly.

But the Abbey needs a new roof, and the Crowley finances can't cover it.

So here come the cameras, set crews and actors, especially handsome Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and beautiful Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) who put the Abbey staffers into a star-struck tizzy.

The studio abruptly cancels the shoot after determining that audiences only want sound movies after the first talkie, "The Jazz Singer," becomes a huge hit.

Barber quickly converts to a sound format and continues shooting, using the Abbey's reluctant, but pleasant-sounding Mary (Michelle Dockery) to dub the dialogue for the screechy, forgetful Myrna.

OK, right about now, you might correctly guess that not much happens plot-wise in "A New Era." But that's OK.

Oh, Barber does put the moves on Mary when he discovers that her husband is out of town.

Downton Abbey's Mary (Michelle Dockery), right, dubs a silent movie star's voice for an ambitious director (Hugh Dancy, in the vest at left) not realizing he has his eye on her as well as the camera lens.
Downton Abbey's Mary (Michelle Dockery), right, dubs a silent movie star's voice for an ambitious director (Hugh Dancy, in the vest at left) not realizing he has his eye on her as well as the camera lens. - Courtesy of Focus Features

And, as more details emerge about Violet's mystery gift villa, the timeline puts Robert's age in the same time period as when Violet romanced her French benefactor. Oh, oh!

Wisely, "A New Era" preserves the hoity-toity "Masterpiece" appeal of the British TV series that, much like soap operas, concentrates on open-ended stories heavier on characterizations than on complex plots and strong conflicts resolved by the closing credits.

Despite its title, this movie hardly ushers in a promised "New Era," but neatly ties up all narrative loose ends and sends die-hard fans off on an ingratiating note of bittersweet finality.

Do you need to see six TV seasons and the previous movie to understand "New Era"?

It definitely helps, but series creator/writer Julian Fellowes (an Oscar winner for writing Robert Altman's "Gosford Park") gives us enough information to fill in the essential background pieces.

As expected, Maggie Smith gets the final word.

It's a killer line.

• • •

Starring: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West

Directed by: Simon Curtis

Other: A Focus Features release in theaters. Rated PG. 124 minutes

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