From hope to hilarity to heartbreak, the “Downton Abbey” franchise’s six television seasons and 2019 film originally delved into the aristocratic world of the Crawleys and their stalwart staff in post-Edwardian England. Now, with Simon Curtis at the director’s helm, the highly anticipated feature-film sequel “Downton Abbey: A New Era” follows the endearing family as they scale emotional heights on the cusp of the 1930s.
Before his involvement as director of the sequel, Curtis was no stranger to the resplendent “Downton Abbey” franchise. In addition to his wife Elizabeth McGovern playing the role of Cora Crawley, Curtis also previously worked with the likes of Maggie Smith — the sharp-tongued Dowager Countess — in a television adaption of “David Copperfield,” as well as Michelle Dockery — the purposeful Lady Mary — in the series “Return to Cranford.”
“I’m a director who loves actors, and it’s the greatest ensemble of British actors, most of whom I had worked with before, and the rest of them were sort of friends,” Curtis shared in an interview with The Daily Californian, referring to his familiarity with the film’s extensive and star-studded cast. “So it felt like a very privileged, fortunate place to be.”
Indeed, the sizable ensemble cast of “Downton Abbey: A New Era” introduces the challenge of weaving together a web of plotlines into a cohesive narrative, without leaving any individuals from the colorful assemblage of fan favorites behind. Yet Curtis leans into this complex, multinarrative structure with creative zeal.
“That was kind of thrilling because every scene was somebody’s most important scene,” the director said.
Throughout an action-packed two hours, audiences experience a riveting rollercoaster ride filled with intriguing twists and turns — whether it’s a potentially ruinous and groundbreaking scandal, an unexpected marriage proposal or a tearful goodbye to one of the most beloved characters. Together, these gripping scenes underscore one of the film’s greatest strengths: The ability to capture poignant moments between the middle and upper-class relationships that eclipse mere socioeconomic status.
“That’s what I think I aim for as a director — just to give everyone a dignity, whatever age, class, sex they are. And I think that’s Julian Fellowes’ great strength,” Curtis said, referencing the visionary “Downton Abbey” creator and screenwriter. “That’s why the show is so popular all over the world. Because everyone sort of identifies with someone, sees their own family dynamic in some way.”
One of the more entangled subplots of the film sequel finds Curtis navigating a metacinematic experience: Filming a film within a film. To attain the financial support necessary to address the deteriorating physical state of the family mansion, Lady Mary allows a film production company to shoot a silent movie called “The Gambler” within the ornate abode. As modernity clashes with tradition inside the estate’s hallowed halls, this decision proves to be rocky terrain not only for characters within the Downton residence, but also for those outside the confines of the film’s narratological structure.
“You’ve got your fake crew, your real crew, you’ve got 22 characters, then the Crawley family come to watch,” Curtis explained. “It’s a real 3D Sudoku trying to work out how to shoot it.”
But this isn’t Curtis’s first experience with an involved, film-within-a-film storyline. His 2011 film “My Week with Marilyn” chronicles a week with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and the creation of the 1957 film “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Drawing on prior knowledge and learned experiences from “My Week with Marilyn” helped keep Curtis grounded amongst the metacinematic filmmaking complexities of the newest “Downton Abbey” installment.
“I knew that if you’re doing a scene in which a scene is being filmed from another film, you’ve got to make sure everyone knows what that scene they’re filming is — because sometimes the script is just three lines,” Curtis recalled from his time directing the 2011 biopic.
Aside from the silent-film plot point, a notable portion of the film follows members of the aristocratic family as they travel from England to the south of France to investigate a mystifying potential scandal. Yet international travel was a feat made difficult considering much of the film was shot during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.
“The biggest issue was that we didn’t know whether we were going to be able to go because of the travel restrictions,” the filmmaker said. “So we had to prepare British versions, British locations for all the French scenes in case we couldn’t go.”
Many COVID-19 tests later, the crew was fortunately able to safely and successfully finish filming in France. Emerging from the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic with just as much heart and grace, the “Downton Abbey” narrative still stands the test of time.
“They’re human beings engaging with each other,” Curtis stated, “which is what I think the greatest strength of Downton is, whether it’s 1928, or 2008.”
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” might take place almost a century away from the modern world, but Curtis’s evocative, intimate storytelling infuses the film with a nostalgic warmth that resonates with today’s audiences — and surely with viewers for many years to come.