The familiar music.
The unmistakable exterior shots of Highclere Castle.
And then, without further ado, we see our English friends from another time.
“Downton Abbey” is back. Again.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is the sequel to “Downton Abbey,” the 2019 film stemming from Julian Fellowes’ popular television drama series of the same name about the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants working for them roughly a century ago.
Like its predecessor, “A New Era” is generally entertaining if also rough around the edges. And, like the 2019 entry, it is most concerned with getting our favorite Brits back together – including but not limited to Maggie Smith’s Violet Grantham and Jim Carter’s Mr. Carson, as well as lesser but still important players such as Kevin Doyle’s charmingly dopey Mr. Molesley – for two more hours of relatively low-stakes fun.
The film initially operates at the speed of a butler who’s had too high-octane tea, reintroducing us to the huge stable of characters in rapid-fire succession and attempting to give each of them a little something appropriately “Downton”-ish with which to be concerned. However, it does eventually settle into its main storylines, unearth some drama and offer potentially landscape-altering developments.
“A New Era” begins with a wedding, that of Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), his love interest from the first film.
Sybbie, Tom’s young daughter with the late Lady Sybil, stands to inherit a villa in the south of France that unexpectedly has been left to the aforementioned Dowager Countess, Violet, the girl’s grandmother. For reasons that are mysterious to all but perhaps “Granny” herself, the late Marquis de Montmirail has bequeathed the lavish seaside property to her.
“Do I look as though I’d turn down a villa in the south of France?” she responds when someone asks her why she’s accepting the gift.
Nonetheless, Violet’s declining health does not allow her to travel back to this place from her distant past, but Violet’s son, Robert (Hugh Bonneville, “Paddington 2”), accepts an invitation to visit the villa by the current Marquis de Montmirail (Jonathan Zaccai), the late owner’s son. While he seems eager to welcome the Crawleys, his mother (Nathalie Baye) is angered by the prospect of losing her winter home.
Robert is keen on the visit if only because it will remove him from Downton as his historic home is taken over by a film crew. His daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, “The Gentlemen”) – who’s now in charge of the family affairs but understandably is still somewhat deferential to her father – convinces him that allowing the movie industry inside their hallowed halls is worth the inconvenience and any distastefulness, as it will pay for the repairs to Downton’s leaking roof.
And so Fellowes, who wrote the script, and director Simon Curtis split up the cast for much of the affair, sending Robert; his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern); their daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael); their aforementioned retired butler, Mr. Carson; and a few others to France, while leaving Mary and most of the servants to remain at home to accommodate the cast and crew of “The Gambler” – and to make sure they don’t destroy the place.
(Mr. Carson is not needed in France, mind you, but after uttering statements such as “A movie production?!? At Downton!?!,” Mary schemes with his wife, Phyllis Logan’s Mrs. Hughes, to get Robert to include him in the expedition.)
Although the villa storyline is potentially more consequential to the family due to information that emerges about Violet and the late Marquis de Montmirail, there’s more fun to be had around the movie shoot.
Servants Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) are among those highly excited to meet the stars of the picture, Guy Dexter (Dominic West, “The Affair”) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). However, one of them proves to be unsophisticated and sometimes downright rude.
On the other hand, the director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy, “Hannibal”), is a complete gentleman, and we sense a spark between Mary and him from the moment they meet. This could prove to be problematic as her husband, Henry Talbot, is off on an adventure.
Guy, meanwhile, takes an interest in Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier, “The Ritual”), who has settled into the job of butler and doesn’t know quite what to make of the suave Hollywood star.
Because Fellowes (“The Gilded Age”) and Curtis (“Goodbye Christopher Robin”) are so concerned with giving all of the actors at least a moment or two, none is truly able to shine. Furthermore, the typically terrific Bonneville has trouble finding his footing even as “A New Era” as a whole does – but the actor does turn in excellent work during a late emotional scene.
And, of course, you can count on Smith (the “Harry Potter” movies) and Carter (“The Good Liar”) nailing their laugh lines.
Some things have changed by the end of “A New Era,” but the majestic home on the Crawleys’ Yorkshire country estate still stands. So while this could be the last we see of the family on the big screen, we’re not betting on it.
And, despite the imperfections of these two films, we’re not hoping for that, either.