Downton Abbey: A New Era [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - Canada - Universal Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (10th August 2022).
The Film

In 1928, a year after the events of Downton Abbey: The Motion Picture, Tom Branson (The Imitation Game's Allen Leech) – Irish former socialist chauffeur who married and then was widowed by the youngest of the daughters of Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham (Notting Hill's Hugh Bonneville) and his American heiress wife Cora (Once Upon a Time in America's Elizabeth McGovern) – has wed Lucy (Possessor's Tuppence Middleton), ladies maid/secret daughter of Lady Maud Bagshaw (Vera Drake's Imelda Staunton), the once-estranged cousin of Dowager Violet Crawley (A Room with a View's Maggie Smith). No sooner are the happy couple sent off on their honeymoon than Robert learns that Violet has called a meeting with her attorney Murray (Rumpole of the Bailey's Jonathan Coy) which his sister Rosamund (Erik the Viking's Samantha Bond) assumes has to do with settling her estate in light of her advanced age.

Violet, however, reveals that she has come into possession of a villa in the South of France, the title of which was transferred to her a year after she spent an idyllic few weeks with the Marquis de Montmirail almost sixty years ago (which she assumed was a joke), and that she intends to leave the villa to Tom's daughter Sybbie since only the natural child of Tom and Lucy can inherit the house Maud has left them, George, the son of eldest daughter Lady Mary (Anna Karenina's Michelle Dockery) and her late first husband Matthew will inherit the Grantham title – also securing the future of Mary's daughter Caroline with her untitled second husband Henry Talbot – and Marigold ,the ward/secret daughter of middle daughter Lady Edith (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's Laura Carmichael) has her own future secured by Edith's marriage to Bertie Pelham (The Little Stranger's Harry Hadden-Paton), the Marquess of Hexham. Montmirail's widow (The Flower of Evil's Nathalie Baye) wants to take the matter to court but her son the current marquis (The Bureau's Jonathan Zaccaï) extends an invitation to Robert, Cora, Tom, and Lucy.

When Robert receives a call from filmmaker Jack Barber (Hannibal's Hugh Dancy) who wants to "practice chronophotography" at Downton, he rejects the idea outright; however, Mary and Edith are not only excited about the prospect of a film shot at the estate but the money that could be used to repair the roof and bring the house up to snuff. Robert accepts Montmirail's invitation in the hopes that he will miss the entire affair of "kinema people" traipsing around the estate. When former butler Carson (Shakespeare in Love's Jim Carter) vociferously objects to the desecration of the estate by film people – which "smacks of the worst excesses of the French Revolution" – his long-suffering wife and head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Secrets & Lies's Phyllis Logan) schemes with Mary's ladies maid Anna (Nature Boy's Joanne Froggatt) and her husband/Robert's valet Bates (Lark Rise to Candleford's Brendan Coyle) to convince Carson to go along to Toulon ostensibly to ease his employer's discomfort with everything "odd and foreign."

When the movie people arrive – primarily Barber, starlet Myrna Dalgliesh (Guardians of the Galaxy's Laura Haddock), and debonair British-born Hollywood star Guy Dexter (The Wire's Dominic West) – Anna, assistant cook Daisy (Cinderella's Sophie McShera), and hall boy Albert (Charlie Watson) are starstruck, Mary is able to forget about her husband Henry spending so much time away from home as a race car drive, and former footman-turned-local schoolmaster Molesley (A Midsummer Night's Dream's Kevin Doyle) is enthralled enough by the magic of cinema so as not to be heartbroken that Miss Baxter (The Boat People's Raquel Cassidy), Cora's ladies maid, will be out of the country (along with Bates and Carson) for several weeks. Less happy about the goings-on are footman Andy (Dunkirk's Michael Fox) who has since married Daisy and is finding things claustrophobic living on the farm of Daisy's former father-in-law Mr. Mason (Zulu Dawn's Paul Copley) whose son William she married during the War just hours before he succumbed to his injuries, cook Mrs. Patmore (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe's Lesley Nicol) who has been waiting years for Mason to get up the nerve to shack up with her, and butler Thomas Barrow (The Ritual's Robert James-Collier) whose special friend Richard Ellis – the closest thing he has met to a proud gay man during a time when homosexuality was illegal – has decided to get married.

Upon arrival in Toulon at the Villa des Colombes, Robert, Cora, Tom, and Lucy – joined by Edith and Bertie – find the current marquis friendly while his mother gives them a chilly reception. When Carson discovers a curio bearing the likeness of the young Violet Crawley, they realize that the resentment of Montmirail's widow may have nothing to do with the possession of the villa. When Robert learns that his mother's week-long acquaintance with Montmirail happened the year before his own birth, he worries that he is a bastard and an impostor; that is, until Cora reveals that her bouts of tiredness are not due to the hot climate but to what she suspects medical tests will reveal is cancer. Back home, Barber is dismayed when the production of "The Gambler" is shut down when the producers deem silent films unprofitable after the success of The Jazz Singer (which only featured a few moments of spoken dialogue) and the first full talkie The Terror. When Mary encourages him to change the production in to a talkie, Dexter worries that his time as an actor has come to an end – assuaging his worries in a flirtation with Barrow that is so subtle that the other man does not grasp the meaning behind his offer to travel with him as his dresser – but it is really Myrna whose strong Cockney accent threatens to ruin her image as a screen siren. When Violet decides to take to her bed, ostensibly for the duration of the filming, Robert fears he is about to lose things that matter far more than an aristocratic title.

Although the series finale and first film had been helmed by Sex and the City series director Michael Engler – who is also one o the producers and directors of Downton Abbey series creator Julian Fellowes' HBO series The Gilded Age – the series' second film spin-off directed by Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) is the one that goes full Sex and the City 2 in its focus on the superficial pleasures of a trip to the South of France at the expense of enough subplots to fill a return series if Fellowes were a more nuanced writer. In a post-Brexit/post-Trump age when the contempt the haves "have" for the have-nots could not be more obvious, the film may come across as remarkably tone-deaf and even insulting for viewers who cannot let the pretty people, costumes, and backdrops wash over them for two hours. Throughout the film, there seems to be a running theme of the working class only capable of achieving good fortune from the whims or encouragement of the upper classes: from young film-making pioneer Barber needing Mary to give him the idea of turning the silent film into a talkie – and stepping in to dub Myrna – to Tom finally throwing off the last vestiges of his socialist ideals for an estate in England and a villa for his daughter in France with his mother-in-law proclaiming happily that he is a "leopard who has successfully changed his spots." While Myrna gets encouragement from Daisy and Anna who tell her to never forget where she came from – she is ultimately helped career-wise by Cora – Molesley at least earns his leg up from a more successful member of his own class. Even a throwaway joke like Robert asking his marchioness daughter Edith how she can possible have time for two or three days a week of work penning articles for her magazine while raising two kids and running a castle may rankle rather than amuse those who work full-time and do not have a nanny or a full retinue of servants.

While the first film lingered too long on the inconsequential and the boring, Downton Abbey: A New Era is so packed with incident as to give just about everyone short shrift. Most of the character arc's are so mechanical that one suspects that Fellowes was writing one scene per index card – indeed, some of the scenes with trailer-quotable dialogue simply cut away or peter off after such utterances like "Do I look as if I'd turn down a villa in the South of France" or I should've thought the best thing about films is that you can't hear them. Be even better if you couldn't see them either" (Violet's quips about cinema seem like leftover gag lines from her Gosford Park character who was a prototype for the Dowager Crawley). The climax appears to be the settling of the legal matters regarding the villa with the answer to Robert's dilemma about his birthright, Cora's illness, and Violet's mortality crammed into a forty minute third act with the filming of the picture – including a scene where all the servants get maid up as the upper class when the film's extras quit due to lack of pay – and a couple proposals and turning points in relationships. While Barrow had a lengthy subplot to himself in the first film, he is almost a nonentity here until Dexter takes notice of him; and he does not have enough screen time to make sense of his decision to take Dexter up on his offer of a job and romance considering how his last relationship ended and what a bachelor actor would likely do to stave off rumors about his sexuality.

Just as one cannot help but wonder if the plot turns for Mary and Barrow were due to the unavailability of Matthew Goode (A Single Man) and Max Brown (The Tudors), one also wonders if Cora's mystery illness was added solely to give screen time to David Robb (Hellbound) as series regular Dr. Clarkson. The only actors best served by their limited screen time are Smith, Haddock, and the underrated Doyle. The film's references to early British film history and the emergence of the talkies is relatively interesting. As with the series, the downstairs scenes were shot on sets at Ealing Studios; and if the film itself had been distributed by Studio Canal rather than Universal, there could have been said to be a tenuous connection to British Lion through Studio Canal's acquisition of the Lumiere library in the 1990s (one of the film's producers was Gareth Neame, grandson of Ronald Neame who had been a cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail for British Lion rival British International Pictures). The only onscreen appearance of the film's title Downton Abbey: A New Era might suggest that the titular period is where the characters find themselves at the end of the film rather than the period of the film proper. One can only hope that if it is the former case then Fellowes and the producers will leave that new era to the imaginations of the viewers rather than another unsatisfactory feature.

Video

Shot in 6K with Sony CineAltra cameras and Panavision anamorphic lenses, Downton Abbey: A New Era looks very different from the series as photographed by Gosford Park alum Andrew Dunn. From the start, the image has a bright, richly saturated image in which picture perfect landscapes could be mistaken for CGI – including shots that feature digital elements – and the interiors of Highclere Castle which looked naturalistically-lit in the series and the first film are rendered differently here. Background and actors are so precisely lit that in 1080p on the Blu-ray, one might indeed think in some scenes that the actors are in front of greenscreens in very good composite shots. Picture modes that lean towards the darker may rectify this.

Audio

Audio extras include a Dolby Atmos track that gives spread to the scoring and sound design without succumbing to the temptation to goose the soundstage with elements that would be distracting to fans of the dialogue-heavy show. The few crowd scenes have believable depth while the rainstorm sequence and the boat voyage across the channel also use the height of the Atmos channel very conservatively. Some French exchanges between the Montmirails are translated with burnt-in subtitles while other incidental French dialogue is not. French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are also included along with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. An English Descriptive Audio Dolby Digital 2.0 track is included on both the Blu-ray and DVD (which replaces the incompatible Atmos track with a Dolby Digital 5.1 downmix).

Extras

Extras start off with an audio commentary by director Simon Curtis who constantly praises Fellowes' economic storytelling where some like myself see a lack, but he also reveals that the subplot of dubbing Myrna was indeed based on the Hitchcock film Blackmail's transformation into a talkie with actress Joan Barry being recruited to dub Anny Ondra due to the latter's thick Czech accent. He also reveals that the pandemic production did not know if it would be able to shoot in France so they had to prep alternate locations in England that ultimately went unused, and also points out some series Easter Eggs like the show's technical advisor Alistair Bruce as the vicar in the wedding opening.

The remainder of the extras are EPK fluff with the cast discussing their reunion in "Good to Be Back" (3:38), new and returning cast in "Return to Downton Abbey: The Making of a New Era" (11:37), bid adieu to Smith and Violet Crawley in "A Legendary Character" (4:10), look at the inspiration for the film within a film and the importance of sound in the era of the film in "Creating the Film... Within the Film" (9:26), a tour of "Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia" (2:53) seen in the journey to France sequence, and a brief but charming piece with Leech and Carmichael "spilling the tea" in "Spill the Tea(time)" (2:23).

Packaging

The two discs are packaged with a digital copy code in a keep case with a slipcover that reproduces the cover insert's rose gold lettering with embossing.

The combo is also available in a Blu-ray 4K/Blu-ray combo as well as a Limited Edition Gift Set with Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy code, collectible photo book, four vintage-style postcards, and a stainless steel tea strainer.

Overall

The only onscreen appearance of the film's title Downton Abbey: A New Era might suggest that the titular period is where the characters find themselves at the end of the film rather than the period of the film proper. One can only hope that if it is the former case then Fellowes and the producers will leave that new era to the imaginations of the viewers rather than another unsatisfactory feature.

 


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