Downton Abbey: A New Era review - Still ludicrously sentimental and formulaic, but Dame Maggie Smith’s a treat

·3-min read
 (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)
(Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)

At the premiere of this long-awaited Downton sequel, the wonderful Jim Carter, who plays pugnaciously patriotic ex-butler Mr Carson, was asked to explain why audiences keep coming back to the franchise. His wise reply: “They go to switch off”. Yep, forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. And go Downton.

If you haven’t seen the TV series – or the 2019 spin-off, Downton Abbey: The Movie – the lumpy plot won’t make a lick of sense. Actually, even if you’re up to speed with all the characters, you’ll struggle to see the logic in most of the toing and froing.

It’s 1929 and decent, old-fashioned Lord Grantham aka Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville; under-used) is worried about his haughty, naughty, terminally ill mother, Violet (Maggie Smith; magnificent), who’s recently been gifted a French villa and is coy as to the reason why. Crawley jets off to the Riviera, with seven members of his extended family, plus the aforementioned Carson. Squinting into the distance, Crawley says, “I’m still curious as to why we’re here.” You and me both, Bob!

Lord Grantham and daughter Lady Mary (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)
Lord Grantham and daughter Lady Mary (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)

The answer to the mystery, of course, is that writer Julian Fellowes has to give all the “favourite characters” something to do and director, Simon Curtis (taking over from Michael Engler, to no discernable effect) needs to drool over a new “pile” and also the pretty Mediterranean sea. Robert’s daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), has a lesser spotted husband, Henry, who is described as being in love with cars and speed. Hah! No danger of this film going too fast. Events, in this neck of the woods, move along with all the zip of a bus in rush-hour traffic, with grinning newly-weds, Tom and Lucy Branson (Allen Leech and Tuppence Middleton) particularly maddening. In case you’re wondering, insults are hurled at the French, (just as in the first film), but having a second home, in France, gets the thumbs up. Talk about having your gateau and eating it.

Meanwhile, back in Yorkshire, a bunch of finely dressed film-folk invade the Abbey and the production’s quote unquote dashing director, Jack, (Hugh Dancy), is soon making eyes at Mary. Will our principled but passionate heroine be tempted to stray? Alas, Jack is so floopy (floppy AND droopy, a heinous combo) you won’t care. In fact, when the film becomes available for home viewing, I imagine Jack’s face will prompt the collective thought, “Let’s get the kettle on!”

Events in the South of France move with all the zip of a bus in rush-hour traffic (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)
Events in the South of France move with all the zip of a bus in rush-hour traffic (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)

The members of the British Lion Company are making a “silent” feature. The female lead in this movie-within-a-movie is Cockney diva, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). The humiliation she faces when it’s decided the film should become a talkie owes a humongous debt to Singin’ in the Rain. Yet Myrna is more sympathetic, and ultimately more entertaining, than that film’s working-class gold-digger, Lina Lamont. Haddock (along with Dominic West, as Myrna’s gorgeous and fluid co-star, Guy Dexter, aka Quentin Sidebottom) goes with the camp flow and earns proper chuckles.

Laura Haddock as screen star Myrna Dalgleish (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)
Laura Haddock as screen star Myrna Dalgleish (Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC)

Fellowes has learnt a lot from Agatha Christie. Want to know the big difference between them? Fellowes thinks it’s tragic when a rich and powerful person pops their clogs. A New Era is funnier and sharper than Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile. But it’s still ludicrously sentimental and formulaic. When Fellowes slips in a reference to David Copperfield, it’s hard not to cringe. Dickens, Shakespeare, Wilde and Christie. Fellowes loves these writers, but – unlike them – his success doesn’t seem built to last.

No such worries re: Smith (Violet is the one thing about Downton Abbey 2 that will never, ever get old). Damn, this Dame’s good.

125mins, PG. Downton Abbey: A New Era is available to view in cinemas from April 29

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