Release Date(s)2022 (July 5, 2022)
Studio(s)Carnival Films/Focus Features (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Downton Abbey: A New Era is the second feature film based on the popular TV series about the lives of the Crawley family, their upper-class friends, and the staff of servants who make their lives comfortable. The time is 1927, when old traditions came into conflict with a world of technology.
The film contains two main story lines. Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) learns, to her astonishment, that she has inherited a villa in France from an old acquaintance with whom she spent only a short time. At the same time, a film crew has requested permission to use Downton Abbey as background for a silent film in exchange for a generous fee that can go toward badly needed repairs on the massive, aging building.
To look into the reasons for the unexpected bequest to the Countess, her son Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), daughter Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), sail to France, accompanied by servants including retired butler Carson (Jim Carter). Back home, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) must cope with disruption caused by a slew of movie people, including leading man Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and platinum blonde leading lady Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). Director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) takes a shine to Lady Mary, whose husband is away racing cars.
Apart from the two main storylines, writer Julian Fellowes weaves in subplots involving several characters. The serving staff is star-struck at having famous movie actors right at Downton. Dexter offers current butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) a tempting opportunity. Cora keeps a secret from the family. The Countess and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) share a confidence. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy Bagshaw (Tuppence Middleton) enjoy newlywed bliss. Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) reveals a talent that will change his life.
The film crew is thrown into a tailspin when the production company orders them to shut down because The Jazz Singer has revolutionized the industry by ushering in “talkies.” The public no longer wants to see silent pictures. This development takes a cue from Singin’ in the Rain as the director figures out a way to salvage the production, with Lady Mary instrumental in saving the day.
Maggie Smith is wonderful, as usual, with her well-focused quips and observations, but her Violet seems a bit mellower than in earlier appearances. She has touching scenes with Lady Mary and Isobel Merton, when she lets down her grand dame facade to speak her heart and confide in two people who are dear to her. A scene in which she watches some of the filming, perplexed by all of the bustle, she jumps whenever “Action!” is called and finally dismisses moviemaking as frivolous and pointless, declaring “I’d rather work in a mine.”
As in the TV series and the previous feature, production value is spectacular, with resplendent costumes, expensive vehicles, elaborate interiors, and views of Downton beautifully establishing the era. The dual storylines unfold separately and might easily have comprised two distinct episodes of the TV series, but writer Fellowes integrates them artfully with incidental sub-plots to give the film a rich texture.
Downton Abbey: A New Era was captured digitally by director of photography Andrew Dunn with Sony CineAlta Venice 6K cameras and Panavision T-Series lenses, finished as a Digital Intermediate, and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Universal’s Blu-ray features outstanding picture quality. The film’s production design rich, lush, and elegant. The color palette ranges from bright, vivid hues to more subtle pastels, especially prominent in the Southern France sequences in which buttery yellows, soft mochas, creamy whites, and pale greens are dominant. Details at the dinner table, costumes, jewelry, vintage vehicles, and the books in the Downton library are nicely delineated. Complexions are natural. The faces of Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, and Tuppence Middleton are creamy smooth with subtle make-up. The Countess’ wrinkles reflect her advanced age and a long, well-lived life. Dexter is handsome, as befits a movie star, with a tanned complexion and a warm expression. A drone shot opens the film, swooping down slowly to reveal tents set up for the Branson-Bagshaw wedding reception and then moves up to and through a stained glass window in the neighboring church to show the happy couple and the wedding guests. Several shots of Highclere Castle, which stands in for Downton Abbey, are interspersed with interiors.
The soundtrack is English Dolby Atmos (7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible). Alternate audio options are Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and DVS (Descriptive Video Service). Optional subtitles include English SDH, Spanish, and French. Since there are no loud or complicated special effects, the film relies mostly on dialogue, which is clear and precise. Effective sound mixing is evident in the dinner scene and in the hubbub of the film crew setting up their equipment while the family tries to maintain normality despite the bevy of strangers in their home. John Lunn’s music appropriately underscores scenes and is particularly effective as the Crawleys sail across the Channel to France and in a key scene involving Countess Violet. One significant scene shows how movies can manipulate sound to dramatic advantage.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack (with a Digital code on a paper insert tucked away inside) include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Simon Curtis
- Good to Be Back (3:38)
- Return to Downton Abbey: The Making of a New Era (11:37)
- A Legendary Character (4:10)
- Creating the Film Within the Film (9:26)
- Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia (2:53)
- Spill the Tea (Time) (2:23)
In the commentary, director Simon Curtis tends to describe scenes without behind-the-scenes details, telling us little more than what we can see on the screen. He notes that the opening—the wedding of Tom and Lucy—introduces all of the characters, with the pan down the church aisle revealing familiar faces from the series. Though the film focuses on the French villa and the filming at Downton storylines, Julian Fellowes managed to have many other stories unfold. Curtis attempted to emphasize the sense of family. The film within the film that’s being reworked from a silent to a sound picture was based on the Alfred Hitchcock film Blackmail. Curtis notes that the British Lion film company making its film shows how much teamwork is involved in the filmmaking process.
Good to Be Back – Cast members discuss returning to their characters and refer to themselves as “joined at the hip” and grateful to be back at work.
Return to Downton Abbey: The Making of a New Era – Certain shots are described in detail. The director is referred to as a “games master,” since he wants everyone to have fun. The filming at Downton creates a firestorm as the old world clashes with the new. CGI was employed in certain shots to suggest locations. Special foods had to be prepared for the dinner scene to show the kind of fare that would have been served at the time.
A Legendary Character – Cast members discuss their affection and respect for Maggie Smith, who “delivers a line with laser precision.” Dame Maggie has the ability to make you laugh in one moment and cry in the next. She is shown, on her final day of filming, leaving the set as cast and crew line the path to her car and cheer her.
Creating the Film Within the Film – Making a film at Downton represents a collision of two worlds. The production had to assemble vintage cameras and film equipment to give the scenes authenticity. The dinner scene was shot over three days and involved over fifty set-ups. Because cameras at the beginning of talking pictures were noisy, they had to be contained in soundproof booths. Filmmakers were desperate for people who could write believable dialogue. Silent stars feared sound would end their careers.
Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia – Views of the ship and its history are provided. This famous yacht stood in for the ship that takes the Crawleys from England to France.
Spill the Tea (Time) – Laura Carmichael and Allen Leech discuss their favorite castmates and their favorite moments from the film.
Downton Abbey: A New Era continues the saga of the Crawley family as two unrelated events shake up the family simultaneously. Writer Julian Fellowes throws the staid way of life at Downton into disarray with the arrival of a film crew, who regard the majestic edifice as merely a film set, oblivious to its history. He also incorporates humor and romance, balancing the formality of life at Downton. With actors who have lived with their roles for 12 years, ensemble playing is exceptional.
- Dennis Seuling