Sunday, May 19, 2024

Review: “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is the “Avengers Endgame” And “Last Jedi” for Fans of the Great Series


Simon Curtis has directed what may be the final chapter of “Downton Abbey” in a “A New Era,” opening on Friday.

Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”) is also the long time husband of actress Elizabeth McGovern, who’s played Lady Cora Crawley, the American wife of Lord Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham since the TV series debuted in 2010. In all those years, Curtis never directed an episode of the popular show, however. He was making movies. We used to joke about how he was never given inside information about what was happening on the series lest he spill the beans.

So it makes poetic sense that Curtis gets the last turn at the wheel with the second and maybe final “Downton Abbey” film written by the show’s genius creator, Julian Fellowes. Curtis is very skilled at creating empathy for characters on screen (see Marilyn Monroe, for example). “A New Era” is much warmer than the first movie with a greater sense of humor. Curtis cleverly leavens the heaviness of inevitable with a light touch. He never allows a maudlin moemnt.

There is, however. a looming tragedy. Maggie Smith’s Violet, Robert’s mother, is dying. She told us at the end of the first movie that she had cancer. This being 1928, and Violet being quite old, there aren’t many options. Indeed, since “Downton” began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, Violet is very likely around 96 years old! (Smith is a spry 86, by the way.)

Since “Downton” fans, not to mention her fictional family, never want to see Violet die, Fellowes has been very smart to set up her exit. He prepares everyone, so that Violet quips her way through “A New Era” until, after dealing with a final disclosure, she’s ready to close her eyes. Fans will need boxes of tissues for this movie.

But it’s a “new era” and Fellowes wisely concentrates on the younger generation. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) welcomes a British film crew to Downton to film a silent movie. They will pay a big fee, which Mary needs to fix the imposing and leaking roof of the famed estate. But movies are in a transition. When the director (an excellent Hugh Dancy) is told to suspend production because talkies are now in vogue, Fellowes cleverly involves Lady Mary in the proceedings.

While the Crawley family and the downstairs staff deal with a movie being shot in their home, the bulk of the gang heads to the South of France. Violet has inherited a lavish villa from a man she knew when she was young. The man’s family is not happy, and Violet cannot explain why he would leave her this extravagant gift. This raises a lot of questions for Robert (Hugh Bonneville) about his paternity.

Between the movie story in the UK and the villa expedition in France, Fellowes manages to not only work in but resolve all the loose threads for the many characters. By the time “A New Era” ends, we have an idea of what the future holds for everyone, and it all seems pretty rosy.

Some notes: Jim Carter’s Mr. Carson shines as usual, reciting a passage from “King Lear” as he receives devastating news. Carter and his real life wife, Imelda Staunton, also get a little “inside joke” scene. Barrow, the gay butler who has struggled with his anger and how to live his life, finally gets to be happy. Kevin Doyle’s Mr. Moseley, famous for hilarious failures, finds a surprising direction. And of course the whole movie hinges on the first scene wedding of former chauffeur Tom Branson, once an Irish revolutionary, marrying a Crawley cousin, thus ensuring the Downton legacy will thrive. (Branson is literally the luckiest man in literary history.)

But will it ? We’ve finally arrived at the point where Wall Street will soon crash in 1929. Hitler will be on the rise. The Great Depression is ahead. Leaky roofs will become the least of Lady Mary’s problems. (Also, her husband, played by Matthew Goode at the end of the series and mostly absent from the first film is totally not present now.) The party is over. All fortunes are going to be reversed soon. And it may be best to let the Crawley’s rest now rather than explore the hard decades to come.

For fans, “A New Era” is the “Avengers Endgame” of this 12 year journey. It’s totally satisfying and incredibly entertaining. The movie is a real tribute to Fellowes, who has created beloved, rich characters who will live on in our imaginations for generations to come.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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