I’m fairly stubborn when it comes to watching particular TV series. Put it this way, if 90% of the world is suddenly into a series, say something like Game Of Thrones or Bridgerton, I see it as a warning sign that the production is going to be (hell, I’ll say it), pretty common. This is possibly not the case but then I may never know since I don’t intend to ever watch an episode of GoT or Bridgerton.
The same goes for Downton Abbey – there were just too many people really into the show for me not to wonder if it was catered to mass market tastes (cue: remarks that I’m a bit of a snob, I’ll take it, and, yes, I guess the masses are shaking up these days).
So the question was, would I enjoy the new Downtown Abbey film – subtitled A New Era – if I hadn’t watched any of the much-beloved series?
In short, the answer is yes. I very much enjoyed it, and surprisingly there were no aspects of the movie that had me rolling my eyes.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is the sequel to the 2019 film Downton Abbey. Both features were written by Julian Fellowes (the creator and writer of the TV series) with the sequel directed by Simon Curtis, the guy behind My Week With Marilyn.
Going into the film, I knew only two things: that one of its key stars was Maggie Smith (and that I quite like Smith’s work onscreen); and that there was something of a movie-making theme within the film itself – which I liked the sound of (pardon the pun, but we’ll get to that in a minute).
A New Era is set in just that, at the end of the heady 1920s on the eve of a new decade of promise and prosperity.
It’s 1929, and the wealthy Crawley family along with their domestic help agree that some maintenance is needed in the Abbey. In typical post-Edwardian style, the family must keep up with appearances, or at the very least deal with big leaks in the castle ceilings that are making life a huge wet mess. Even for aristocrats, big leaks in big ceilings cost a pretty penny, and just in time, an offer comes along to rent out their castle for a Hollywood production crew to shoot in.
As it happens, someone has left the good Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley (Smith) a decent bit of property in the south of France, which gives the family and several of their servants a place to stay while the castle is all fixed up and the movie-makers can make their movie.
This splits the film into two main settings, which is probably a relief for fans of the series – to see the family in an environment outside of their usual one, while it also allows for newbies like me to appreciate the movie more – just in case we didn’t care for stuffy scenes in stuffy castles in stuffy English estates.
The big surprise for me was how likeable these posh peeps were. Maggie as the matriarch sets the standard for a family that doesn’t let wealth (or part lack thereof) dictate their lives, but instead one that invites irony, chaos and everyday difficulties into their world. The fact they keep the help close to home, literally, and that they treat each servant with more respect than the usual is one of the aspects fans of the TV show must have enjoyed. And it is magnified ten-fold on the big screen as one die-hard fan informed me.
Someone also once told me that the servants in the TV series are the real stars of the show – always ready to deliver a cunning quip, and enjoying as much drama in their lives as their masters and mistresses. In Downton Abbey: A New Era, the help actually become stars for a day, stepping in as extras in the movie being made around them.
Regarding this aspect of the film, it couldn’t be more appropriate for its time and setting. Towards the end of the 1920s, movie-goers were getting used to hearing dialogue in films. The first transition from silent films to talkies began in about 1926 but by the end of the 1920s, technological developments were so advanced that there were big box office successes featuring talk including The Jazz Singer (more singing than talking, but still), The Perfect Crime (1928), and Lights Of New York (also 1928, considered the world’s first all-talking feature film). Even Walt Disney got in on the act, releasing the short film Steamboat Willie which starred a very squeaky-sounding Mickey Mouse.
For human stars who sounded squeaky themselves, silent films were a blessing, but the transition from silent movies to talkies wasn’t going to be an easy one. This is farcically demonstrated in the film Singin’ In The Rain, in which a vain, spoiled, talentless ‘actress’ named Lina Lamont is forced to have her voiceovers done by someone more competent in the vocal field. A Lamont-like character features obviously in A New Era, as a kind of metaphor of the desperate changes all the other characters are forced to face as another decade clocks in.
One character gets a health scare; another is having homosexual longings; another is hiding romantic secrets from the past; and others are having mixed concerns about what challenges the new decade will bring.
Patently recovered from the First World War, the challenges they face might appear as first world problems on the face of it, but when all added up, even rich folk have to face a plethora of unwanted drama in their lives. Which is why the lightheartedness among this particular family and their domestic counterparts is very much welcomed and appreciated.
And as we as a society are going through hard pandemic times right now, we are need of (a) relating to people onscreen that are going through times of change and upheaval, and (b) learning to laugh more over the hardship rather than dwell in it.
If you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps, go see this film. It cuts through the boundaries of class, culture and gender as much as the TV series did, I suspect. And it’ll leave you smiling from ear to ear at a time when everything else around us is looking so glum.
‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ is in cinemas now.