So, here we are again. A second film about the upstairs/downstairs saga of the Crawley family and their servants made famous in the original PBS series, “Downton Abbey.”
You would think after six years of weekly TV episodes and a follow-up movie that their story would be played out.
But I am happy to report that “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a thoroughly enjoyable continuation of the Crawley’s upper-crust life in the Yorkshire countryside, and as welcome as a warm cup of Earl Gray on a chilly afternoon.
The year is 1928, and Violet, or Lady Grantham, the family matriarch, played to acid perfection by Dame Maggie Smith, learns she has inexplicably inherited a villa in the south of France. The why of that inheritance is the sort of mystery that screenwriter and series developer Julian Fellowes does so well.
The few family members who’ve decamped to the balmy weather on the French Riviera find that the inheritance isn’t without its complications, namely that the benefactor’s widow isn’t happy that she’s about to be evicted by some distant Brits and all because her late husband apparently had a dalliance with Lady Grantham long before their marriage.
Meanwhile, a silent movie company proposes to film a picture amid the authentic splendor of the historic Crawley estate. Which means the rest of the family and staff struggle with the chaos that only such a production can create. It doesn’t help that actors of the silent era, the so-called “cinema people,” were considered equals of the low-born and distinctly without class.
The disruption, though, has an upside. The Crawley’s need a new roof and the money on offer is substantial, at least for 1928.
The movie’s impact on their aristocratic life is easily the best part of “A New Era.” Because, like the classic “Singing in the Rain,” it shows how the advent of “talkies” upended the business of making movies and the lives of those unfortunate actors whose voices didn’t mesh with the expectations of moviegoers newly-accustomed to hearing sound on the screen.
At one point, Lady Mary is recruited to lend her voice as a substitute for the actual low-brow vocals of the female lead. And as the savior of the picture, she draws focus from the handsome director, played by Hugh Dancy.
Movie dramas, even those as warmly predictable as “Downton,” inevitably need an occasional injection of melancholy to counterbalance the comedy, or, in this case, the lightness of a life of remarkable privilege. As was true in the TV series, some characters must depart. And I admit in one case I was moved to tears.
As the story wraps up, longtime fans will wonder if there will be a third film. The only answer can be “yes,” or as long as there is an England. And enough money to reunite what remains of this splendid cast.
By the way, if you missed the first movie, this one begins with a six-minute recap, elegantly fashioned as both an introduction to the world of Downton for newbies and a refresher for those who know the difference between a Grantham and a Crawley.