“Downton Abbey: A New Era” has the feeling of a grand curtain call for Britain’s most beloved PBS export. Sunnier and funnier than the previous “Downton” film, it bestows amusing moments and lines on every loyal cast member, enough screen time for each to take a graceful curtsy or bow.
The One Wedding and a Funeral tale does what used to be a sign, in American sitcoms, that they’d run out of ideas. It sends half the cast on a vacation and leaves the other half behind because “They’re making a MOVIE at Downton!”
But the light, jokey tone of series creator Julian Fellowes’ script makes everything seem frothy, even if the title is a tease. Set in the summer of 1928, tastefully avoiding the looming Great Depression, class strife and Britain’s first flirtation with fascism, to say nothing of the Second World War to follow, it doggedly refuses to get to anything truly “new” save for that film production, which comes just as talkies are taking over the moving pictures.
Newcomers Hugh Dancy, as a filmmaker and fresh man-candy for Lady Mary to flirt with, the great Dominic West as a British ex-pat film star who’s made it in Hollywood, and Laura Haddock (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Transformers: The Last Night”) playing a silent screen beauty who’s benefited greatly from the fact that audiences haven’t heard her Cockney screech, all class up the place and provide sources of conflict.
Fellowes’ little homage to “Singing in the Rain” feels absolutely essential here, as he’s rubbed all the edges off every character from the series. It’s hard to remember what catty cat-fighters Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton once were, what a stuffed-shirt upper class popinjay Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham was, the headstrong, cutthroat maneater Michelle Dockery let us see under Lady Mary’s flapper bob and the back-stabbers, vipers and poseurs who inhabited the upstairs and downstairs of this updating of “Upstairs/Downstairs.”
Only the poseurs remain — smiling, dressing for dinner, addressing each other as “mu-MAH” and “pu-PAH,” and inheriting “a villa in the South of France.”
That would be Lady Grantham’s (Smith) news, that some Frenchman who was smitten by her as the American Civil War was winding down left her a seaside vacation home on the Riviera. As the Frenchman’s family (Nathalie Baye, Jonathan Zaccaï) is understandably put out, there’s nothing for it but for a delegation to go over and stay with them as they hash out, like gentlefolk, whether or not this hand-off will happen.
Lady Grantham’s family is in a tizzy over just what “Grand-muh-MAH” did to so tickle that Marquis’ fancy during the reign of Queen Victoria.
A lot of the clan is eager to leave, as this producer/director (Dancy) wants to rent their “Escape to the Country” pile for his cinematograph, zoetrope or whatchamacallit. None of the snooty swells can seem to summon up the right word for “movie.”
“Actresses plastered in makeup, parading around. Actors…just plastered.” Lord Grantham won’t stand for it. So he and a vast entourage that includes the American wife he married for her money (Elizabeth McGovern) and the cinema-disapproving old butler Carson (Jim Carter, the rock upon which this series and these movies are built) pack up and flee.
“I’ve found when dealing with foreigners,” Carson intones, “if you speak LOUDLY and slowly, they’ll bend to your will!”
Those left behind make their rude remarks about acting — “I’d rather eat pebbles!” — and the actors, once they show up. The stunning Myrna Dalgleish (Haddock) has adoring fans among the staff, but shatters the illusion when she opens her mouth. Only old Lady Grantham is delighted.
“Oh how MUSICAL you make it sound!”
Scandals will be hinted at, flirtations opened — Guess who quips “I DO like them handsome!” — and the pluckier and more adaptable among the upstairs swells and downstairs staff will find ways to make it all work and to shine in this brave new world of talking pictures.
Fellowes serves up a little profundity — “Marriage is a novel, not a short story.” — and a lot of one-liners, giving Dame Maggie plenty of fresh zingers, and the estimable Mr. Carter one or two xenophobic shots as well.
“They’re very French, the French, aren’t they?”
Only the barest hint of the class consciousness that the Irish chauffeur Tom (Allen Leech) married into the family with remains.
“Because of your blood, lovely things happen.”
Fellowes gives the characters’ moments that sing, and director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Goodbye Christopher Robin”) makes the entire frothy affair skip along, start to finish.
That gives “A New Era” the edge over the other “Downton” film and most episodes of the series. In this condensed form, there’s a glorious taste of sentiment, plenty of widescreen grandeur and a pace that pleases and serves the snippy banter. None of this over-dressed soap opera droning on and cliffhanging about, just winks and merry moments and laughs, sure to tickle the faithful and let us take our leave of Downton — if indeed this is its last hurrah — with warm regards for one and all.
Rating: PG, suggestive references, language
Cast: Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Laura Carmichael, Laura Haddock, Jim Carter, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Robert James Collier, Tuppence Middleton, Allen Leach, Kevin Doyle, Nathalie Baye, Jonathan Phyllis Logan, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Zaccaï, and Maggie Smith.
Credits: Directed by Simon Curtis, scripted by Julian Fellowes. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 2:05