The release of a DOWNTON ABBEY movie is almost a cause for celebration for its target audience of elderly moviegoers. To this demographic, there is every bit of excitement as if you were to be catching a new Marvel or DC property for the young folk. All of the usual grey-hair set was eagerly in their seats at my preview screening, ready to already enjoy a cinematic update of their “stories”, and even though I may be a “bit” younger, I could definitely sense the excitement in the air. Turns out I also like these movies too, having been very satisfied with the first 2019 movie even never having seen any of its televised 52 episodes since airing in 2010. I swear I’ll catch up with it one day.
Where this sequel took me by total surprise is that A NEW ERA, along with its usual show twists and storylines, is overall about the process of making movies, and in this case the transition between the silent era in the late 1920s leading into talking pictures after THE JAZZ SINGER became all the rage. This era of movies has always fascinated me as it was the most challenging to actors who at that point were mostly known for theatrical staging and pantomimes as their craft. Now, they have to use their voice too!
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s that several key plot points here are identical to SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, where those characters also had major issues transitioning from silent pictures to talking ones, right down to the female lead not having a suitable voice for acting and problems with recording sound and effects. This is where A NEW ERA really worked for me, as I liked the interactions between the film crew and the working-class house staff, and there’s a really funny few moments where the staff themselves even get to be in the movie.
Of course, being the DOWNTON show, there is a LOT more going on behind the scenes. In the opening sequences we learn of the Countess of Grantham inheriting a villa in the south of France and a locket that opens up a possible family-shakeup for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) and the ailing Violet (Maggie Smith, whose presence alone is enough to buy a ticket to see this movie). There are also a lot of interpersonal connections with the family and the Downton house staff, far too much to describe here, but all of it I found very interesting as every character of all classes have their own unique voice, and a lot of things are clearly explained here in case you aren’t caught up, like me.
The filmmaker is Simon Curtis, who is no stranger to big movies and this series (more recently he directed GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN and THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN and also has countless TV credits) and overall produces a lively, well-photographed presentation. Big screens are also made for movies like this, so ensure you’re seeing this in a movie theatre that knows what it’s doing. Curtis has a lot of fun with the filmmaking sequences and I admired Hugh Dancy as the worried director who develops an innocent crush on Lady Mary (a luminous Michelle Dockery) along with a good turn by Dominic West who nails the silent-to-talkie era performance well, and Laura Haddock in what is essentially the Lina Lamont character, but also with her own three dimensions.
Of course, A NEW ERA is far from perfect. One subplot involving a relationship between the silent actor and a house helper felt very added on to meet more modern PC requirements, and a few final sequences wrap a lot of the plot lines up a little too quickly, even though it runs just a few minutes over a very packed two hours.
Still, for a motion picture that is a theatrical extension of this popular TV show, I was quite impressed by all of the different characters all interacting around this new Talking Picture. The majority of people coming to see it are already “in” on the concept and I am sure will really enjoy all of it and get their money’s worth. And any movie that makes me want to put on SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN right after is good enough for a recommendation.
DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA is now playing in theatres.