Violet Crawley died not exactly at the end of the first Downton Abbey film, but as the Countess Dowager in the comically disapproving form of Maggie Smith, who invited relatives into a somber chat, there was certainly a hint that her last appearance was in the… “Did you mean to say ‘franchise’, young man? Are we a car dealership now?”
Her relatively vivid reappearance at the start of this frantic sequel is therefore comparable to all the times Tom escaped unscathed after Jerry set off dynamite in that cat’s ear piercings.
If she can get through this, she can get through anything. I stopped counting when I’d tabulated eight competing plots and subplots — someone is in love with a married someone else, someone’s father may not be who we thought someone might be pregnant with, someone (cough!) looks terribly tired off and so on – each transmitted in scenes so hasty that even TikTok users get dizzy.
No older countess can be expected to look down her nose so much.
The overall dual structure is less complicated. Note the old convention of Are You Being Served? to The Inbetweeners and People Just Do Nothing, has seen British TV shows go on holiday for their big screen incarnation, broadcasts the series Robert CrawleyEarl of Grantham (a slimmed down Hugh Bonneville) and some family members to a villa in southern France.
It appears that a former acquaintance of Violet’s gave the place to the earl’s granddaughter – the son of a soup-snorting former Irish Republican – for reasons that TikTokked eventually spilled out at breakneck speed Tom Branson (Allen Leech) – and the family think it would be polite to get in touch with the current residents.
In the meantime, a film crew has arrived to film what Robert (I think) refers to as a ‘chronophoto’ at the property before his departure for the Riviera. While one group of Nobs work through a quieter version of Tender is the Night, the other, more heavily minion-soaked, adapts to the demands of vulgar Wardour Street types.
With no time for plot development, characters speak to us through the kind of synopses you might encounter in a Wikipedia entry. When, deep in the shoot, it becomes clear that talkies are taking over and the current movie is already out of date, someone explains that talkies are taking over and the current movie is already out of date (needless to say the Dowager Countess is sourly surprised as to why anyone is making the terrible things should speak).
The gruff-sounding Myrna pokes fun at an already insanely busy film borrowing plot points from Singin’ in the Rain.
This character’s treatment reminds us of how odd Downton Abbey has always been about class. The aristocratic characters don’t sound like what such people would have sounded like between the wars – nowhere near as clipped. The servants rarely slip into the deep Yorkshire dialect. All, upstairs and downstairs, are merrily middle-class together – content to hug and kiss as if parlor maids had washed the dishes as a favor with no money changing hands.
Only Myrna, with her Cockney vowels and ‘vulgar’ manners, seems exempt from the bourgeois consensus, and for her sins she is reviled by countesses and kitchen staff alike.
Yet for all the moral compromises and narrative confusion, A New Era can’t be said to be boring. There’s a constant sense that excellent actors make the best of indifferent material.
Smith has been doing this for half a century because nobody has done it better in that time. Bonneville’s pathological benevolence distracts from the earl’s social complacency. The handsome leech digests his character’s mulligatawny, consommé, and cock-a-leekie with reliable charm.
If you don’t like the story you’re watching, another one will follow in 20 seconds. There are worse ways to fill time.
Opened April 29th