I confess I never clapped eyes on the TV series Downton Abbey until four years after it went off the air. In late November 2020, Apple iTunes was selling the digital box set of the series for $39.99 as part of its post-Thanksgiving holiday sale. So I snapped it up.
And I love the show. The first season is near-perfect and while the remaining five seasons never match Season 1’s brilliance, they’re still so much fun to watch. Halfway through the box set, I discovered there was also a Downton Abbey feature film that was released in 2019, three years after the series ended. So I bought that from iTunes as well.
Maybe because I transitioned directly from the final episode of the series to the 2019 movie, the feature film was a bit of a letdown. It was enjoyable and everything, but provided nothing that made it worthy of a cinematic feature.
In short, the first Downton Abbey movie was an extended episode of the show, only fans had to wait three years and pay money to see it.
So when Downton Abbey: A New Era, the second feature film, came out a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to it, but I adjusted my expectations downward based on my disappointment with the first film.
And last night I finally saw Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Compared to the first film, this one is better. But it still felt like a long-running episode of the series rather than a cinematic feature.
In both films, the unique and challenging relationships so carefully crafted during the series are pretty much set aside to focus solely on the plot. And I was disappointed in that because it was the growing and changing relationships between characters that made me fall in love with the series.
The Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley. Mary Crawley and her sister Edith. Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. The Crawley Family and Tom Branson. Mr. Moseley and Miss Baxter. Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson. Watching these relationships develop and change during the course of the series is what made Downton Abbey so wonderful to me. Those relationships were often the source of much of the comedy and conflict that made the show so unique.
But in both movies, we get very little of those character arcs. The characters are just there to serve the movie plot and not much else.
In the first film, the plot was “The King and Queen are coming to Downton during their tour of the North.” That’s pretty much it. It could’ve been done as a two-hour television special rather than a feature film and not lost a single thing.
In Downton Abbey: A New Era there are two separate plots, so already it’s more complex than the first film.
Plot One: A movie production company pays the Crawleys to use Downton to shoot a silent picture.
Plot Two: A French marquis dies and leaves his villa on the Riviera to the Dowager Countess of Grantham. As the Dowager is dying, she leaves the villa to her eldest granddaughter, the late Sybil Branson’s daughter, Sybbie.
So most of the family travels to France to see the villa and meet the late marquis’ son while Lady Mary and the Dowager remain with the servants at Downton to contend with the movie people.
I enjoyed both plots. But the writing is a smidge superficial. Maybe having two plots in one 2-hour film required writer Julian Fellowes to dial back on the details.
But even the first film had the same rushed, superficial feel to it with only one plot. So maybe Fellowes just phoned it in. Who knows?
Speaking of phoning it in. The most glaring negative about Downtown Abbey: A New Era was the fact that Julian Fellowes flat-out ripped off the plot from a beloved, classic movie and used it in his film. That made my jaw hit the floor.
See if this sounds familiar to you.
A movie company is making a costume drama silent film with a well-known movie actor and famous starlet. Halfway through making the movie, the production company announces that talking pictures have become such a draw, the company will no longer produce silent films.
So the costume drama silent film has to be remade into a talking picture.
Problem. The famous starlet, while an on-screen beauty, has the voice of a strangled turkey. What’s the production to do? Surely, they can’t have her speaking lines an audience can hear.
Hey, let’s have this unknown woman with a beautiful voice dub in the lines while the starlet simply mouths the words!
If you read that and thought, “That’s from Singin’ in the Rain,” technically, you’d be right.
But it is also part of the storyline for Plot One of Downton Abbey: A New Era.
No points for originality on that, Julian.
Don’t get me wrong, the Downton version is entertaining. I largely enjoyed it. But that doesn’t make the theft any less shameless.
On a scale of zero to 10 stars, I’d give 7 stars to Downton Abbey: A New Era. But since five of those stars were guaranteed because I love the series so much, the film only boosted my rating by 2 stars.
Without including spoilers, I’ll say there were some hints of finality to this film that leads me to suspect there may not be another feature film. I could be wrong. But I got that feeling.
And really? Maybe that’s a good thing. The feature film route just doesn’t work here.
This is why part of me would prefer it if Downton Abbey could return to TV as a 6 to 8-episode mini-series. Only, this time, set the mini-series ten years ahead to around 1940. Sure, this would mean many of the original characters would be gone. But it would allow new central characters to emerge – maybe have the 1940 Earl of Grantham be Lady Mary’s son George.
Placing it in 1940 would allow for a storyline related to the Second World War. The plot could have something to do with Downton being used to house the children evacuated from London during the Blitz.
Fun fact: this actually happened at the real-life Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed.
Sorry. I’m just fantasizing.
My point is, to get the true feel of the series, a feature film just isn’t the right medium. We need something that has the time to dig deep and develop relationships. A single-season return could do that.
Bottom line, if you love the series, you will enjoy this film immensely even with its flaws. Just don’t go into it expecting a masterpiece in cinematic genius. Because you’ll probably be disappointed.
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