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MIKE AT THE MOVIES: Downton Abbey: A New Era Expands Universe of Popular Series

by MIKE ORLOCK

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Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG) begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. 

If you’re familiar with the hit show that aired on PBS from 2010 to 2015, or with the first movie in 2019 that continued the saga of Lord Grantham and his family and the many servants who worked in the enormous great house that sat like a museum in the Yorkshire countryside, you can probably guess who gets hitched during the first few minutes of this new installment, which successfully brings the family into the turbulent 1930s. (It’s Tom Branson and Lucy, the out-of-wedlock daughter of cousin Lady Bagshaw, who began their flirtations in the swirl of activity accompanying the king’s visit in the previous movie.)

You can probably guess who the dearly departed is, too, but there will be no spoilers from me on that score. To borrow from the lexicon of the lord, that wouldn’t be cricket.

A New Era, once again scripted by series creator Julian Fellowes, divides its time between two stories and two locations: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the de facto head of Downton Abbey, opens the house to a film crew that will pay handsomely to use it in a new feature starring the dashing Guy Dexter (Dominic West, playing the rake with a sly smile under a pencil-thin mustache) and the oh-so-glamorous Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock in full diva mode). 

Lord Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is aghast at Mary’s decision until she shows him the state of disrepair the estate has fallen into – and the size of the sum that Lion Pictures head Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) is willing to pay.

Good thing Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) has just unexpectedly inherited a villa in the French Riviera from an old paramour, and it needs inspecting. Violet intends to leave this new property to Tom’s young daughter, Sybbie, so Robert, wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), the newlyweds (Allen Leech and Tuppence Middleton), and a smattering of servants led by the crusty Carson (Jim Carter) embark on a little vacation/honeymoon/business trip to another grand estate, except that this one overlooks the Mediterranean and is staffed by (heavens!) French people. 

There they receive the cold shoulder from Mme de Montmirail (Nathalie Baye), who resents that this fine property from her estranged husband is going to an English family; but a warmer welcome from the marquis (Jonathan Zaccaï), who insinuates that there might be more than just a brief love affair connecting the Granthams and the Montmirails.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, the movie production is suddenly thrown a curve when the studio decides, in the wake of the overwhelming success of the first talkies (The Jazz Singer and The Terror), to make their film a talking picture, too. 

This leads to complications similar to the movie-within-a-movie spoof from the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, with Lady Mary lending her sultry voice to keep the project alive, and the cast of beloved maids and cooks and butlers and footmen (you know who they are) coming to the rescue when the film crew mutinies.

Journeyman director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin) keeps things light and lively, even as the film tumbles into tragedy at the end, which is a pretty good trick for a franchise as familiar as this one. A New Era tiptoes into new terrain for the Granthams and their extended family instead of rushing headlong, but that’s OK. I suspect this isn’t the last time we’ll visit Downton Abbey.