The Crawley family traverses the fallout from a deeply personal secret in Downton Abbey: A New Era.
When last we left the this sprawling Yorkshire estate, the Crawleys were recovering from an impromptu visit from the king in 2019’s Downton Abbey film. This installment, which feels very much like the final chapter, finds the household coming to grips with a pair of disparate challenges. Violet (Maggie Smith) has some explaining to do when she suddenly inherits a stately French villa from a mysterious stranger. Now expected to run Downton, Mary (Michelle Dockery) is left to deal with a film crew who wants to use the manor as the primary location for their latest moving picture. Will she risk the family reputation for such an uncultured endeavor?
I count myself among the many fans of the much-beloved TV series from Julian Fellowes, although I can’t say the same for its continuation onto the big screen. I found the 2019 film lacking in any real tension and more saccharine than a pallet full of rock candy. To say that I had low expectations for a sequel would be an understatement, and those expectations proved mostly warranted.
The two main plot points for the current film feel forced, fake and frazzled. The biggest problem with this dual-story approach is that it splits the Crawley clan into two distinct groups who rarely cross paths — interactions that previously accounted for much of the allure of the series.
Most surprising is that the story focusing on Violet’s past barely involves Violet herself. The film sizzles every time Smith is on-screen and fizzles every time that she’s not, and she’s off-screen most of the time. Not much of her half of the story makes sense, especially in how it ultimately resolves. Viewers would best be advised to not dwell on it very long.
You get a sense right out of the gate that Fellowes’s main goal is to win the audience over with continual shots of pure, unadulterated happiness. The result is a film that’s sappier than a forest full of maples. Gone is the signature sniping between Violet and Isobel (Penelope Wilton). In its place is outrageously great news for almost everyone within earshot of Yorkshire. We get more convenient bookends here than can be found in a well-stocked library. The only thing missing is Oprah Winfrey shouting, “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!”
Diligent fans who can wait 100 minutes for the shenanigans to mainly subside will be rewarded with a tonal shift back toward the Downton that we all know and love. The final forty minutes deliver what most fans are looking for — better late than never, I suppose.
I should also point out that first-timers should avoid this film entirely. This is an epilogue with little pretense toward catching up the newbies. For the rest, this installment mainly gets everyone all dressed up, but leaves them with nowhere to go.