“Downton Abbey” is no stranger to the long-standing clash between tradition and change. Over the course of six television seasons and a film, the widely acclaimed historical drama followed the aristocratic Crawley family and its steadfast servants as they navigated rapid political, economic and social developments in early 20th-century Britain.
Set in 1928, the franchise’s latest installment, “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” follows a similar pattern, introducing impending change on the horizons of the eponymous estate. For a franchise as established and cherished as “Downton Abbey,” the suggestion of a new era presents a myriad of daunting challenges — balancing an ensemble cast of fan favorites, integrating unfamiliar faces and evolving to modern demands.
However, “A New Era” manages to skillfully neutralize the discordance between the old and the new. Together, screenwriter and creator Julian Fellowes and director Simon Curtis construct a narrative that is thrilling enough to intrigue first-time viewers but nostalgic enough to satisfy the franchise’s most staunch enthusiasts.
“A New Era” opens with a sprawling, exuberant montage of the beloved cast attending a wedding ceremony. Amid celebratory photographs, a whimsical rendition of John Lunn’s soaring musical theme engulfs the film’s initial moments in equal parts rousing anticipation and wistful intimacy.
To maintain thematic equilibrium amid an extensive ensemble of individuals, each with their own intricate backstories, the film bifurcates into two major plotlines. To investigate the summer villa mysteriously inherited by the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), the majority of the Downton residents travel to the south of France — the first time the family collectively goes abroad in the franchise’s history.
Closer to home, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the willful captain of the Downton ship, desperately searches for a way to keep the slowly deteriorating family mansion afloat. As a solution, she allows a generously paying film company to use the Abbey as a location for the Hollywood production “The Gambler,” much to the chagrin of traditionalists such as Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and the ever-proper former butler Carson (Jim Carter).
Remaining true to its title, the film sumptuously showcases the Crawleys’ unfamiliar experience with international travel, as the family must adjust to the heat produced by France’s balmy climate as well as the villa’s current residents — namely, the inhospitable Madame Montmirail (Nathalie Baye). “A New Era” also grounds itself in historical modernity by exploring the evolution from silent movies to “talkies” that occurred in late 1920s showbusiness. Admittedly, the plot is strikingly similar to that of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
The film’s refreshing creative vision is further supplemented by charming performances from never-before-seen showbiz characters, who revitalize the halls of the Yorkshire mansion with expeditious zeal. From the delightfully suave director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) to movie stars such as the haughty Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) and easygoing Guy Dexter (Dominic West), “A New Era” is infused with just enough invigorating new blood to prevent plot lines from growing stagnant.
Even as “A New Era” hints at change on multiple levels, beneath its maudlin and deliciously opulent exterior, the film is, at its core, an exploration of the profoundly touching relationships that transcend the practices dictated by social class.
As they traverse uncharted territories both in England and abroad, beloved characters receive a moment to shine in their own spotlights regardless of socioeconomic status — from the modern-minded Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) to the former footman Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle). This is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, but it is also its greatest weakness. In its attempt to entwine countless subplots and cater to the sweeping demands of a devoted fanbase, “A New Era” occasionally truncates plot points, leaving machinations underdeveloped or resolving issues with unnatural simplicity.
Save a few glazed-over storylines, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is an overall triumph. As the Downton residents are ushered to the cusp of the 1930s, audiences are escorted into a world that promises extravagance, exhilaration and emotion, even if only for two hours.