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Downton Abbey: A New Era review – a predictable but sumptuous sequel

Julian Fellowes plays the expected hits in this soapy and sweet second movie spin-off, set on the stunning French Riviera

The latest – and perhaps final – chapter of the Downton Abbey story starts with a wedding and ends with a funeral and the arrival of a new baby which, in a way, tells you everything important you need to know about it. 12 years, six series, and now two films later, Julian Fellowes’s cultural juggernaut is content to play the hits one would expect of not only Downton, but of any piece of British media with this sort of longevity. There aren’t many surprises here, yet in putting a bow on over a decade of time spent in the company of the Crawley family, there hardly needs to be.

As the second cinematic entry into this series, the expectation is that this Downton will go bigger and it does, for the most part, expanding the scope of proceedings even if it doesn’t actually raise the stakes all that high. After Lady Grantham/Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith, forever the lynchpin of this entire endeavour) receives a mysterious letter, it transpires that an old marquis beau of hers from decades ago has left her his magnificent villa on the French Riviera in his will. To figure out why, half the family decamps to France to meet the marquis’s son at the villa, whilst the rest stay at Downton to oversee a movie production using the house and grounds for filming.

This two-pronged approach keeps things lively and actually prevents the film from becoming too busy, splitting the massive returning cast and all the new faces in half to prevent too many people getting lost in the shuffle. Included in the France trip are the iconic faces of Hugh Bonneville as gentle patriarch Robert, Jim Carter as uptight butler Carson, amongst many others, whilst forward-thinking Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Violet’s friend and confidante Isobel (Penelope Wilton) remain in England.

It’s in the filming process that most of the new cast pop up, from Hugh Dancy as the dashing director of the film to Dominic West and Laura Haddock as the glitzy stars, both worried their silent-era glory is about to fade with the arrival of talkies. Inevitably, there are some sub-plots that simply don’t get the time they need, but Fellowes and director Simon Curtis mostly do an admirable job of keeping all their plates spinning smoothly.

A New Era is pretty explicitly “one for the fans” and anyone who delights in withering remarks delivered in the poshest English accents imaginable will find plenty to love here, even as the minimising of any potential actual conflict stops most of the big emotional beats from hitting all that hard. For the less devoted audience members, it may well be a struggle to keep up with exactly who’s who and what they’re up to (the generally middling performances don’t help matters here), but there is still one genuine knockout sequence that plaster a big grin on all but the grumpiest viewer.

Fundamentally, A New Era is just more Downton Abbey; maybe, in fact, the most Downton Abbey there could ever be. It just about earns its place on the big screen (especially when it envelops us in some mouthwatering French scenery) even as its TV origins – from the soapy writing to the uneven cast – make themselves felt. This is obviously a series that is content to rest on its laurels at this point, but, given the massive success it’s already enjoyed, it clearly needn’t do anything else.

Downtown Abbey: A New Era is now in UK cinemas.

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