This review contains spoilers for “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”
I watched “Downton Abbey” for the first time during the summer of 2020. It was the summer after my freshman year of college and we had all just been sent home from the University of Michigan due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My mom and I were sitting in the basement one night, as we did most nights during those six months of isolation, looking for something to watch when we stumbled across “Downton Abbey.” I had certainly heard of the show, and my mom had friends who had watched it, so we figured hey, why not, we’ll give it a try. One episode can’t hurt.
At the end of that first episode my mom and I turned to each other, shocked, awed and utterly giddy. “Downton Abbey” was going to take over our lives. From that night onward we watched two or three episodes every night until we finished all six seasons. We watched the first accompanying film just days after finishing the show. In the first five minutes of the movie there’s an aerial shot of the Abbey itself — Highclere Castle in real life — and my mom and I turned to each other again. Only this time, we were both on the brink of tears.
Something similar happened a few weeks ago in the dark of a movie theater. I went home to Tennessee to get my wisdom teeth out but, more importantly, to see “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” the second film installment in the “Downton Abbey” universe, with my mom. The film fed us yet another wide shot of the Abbey, and my mom and I shared a now-familiar look. We had been expecting this — the tears in our eyes glinting in the light of the movie screen — and we both laughed. I have seen the “Downton Abbey” series in its entirety four times, but it doesn’t matter. Seeing Downton always feels like coming home.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” comes off the back of the popular “Downton Abbey” television series. Airing from September 2010 to November 2015 on ITV and PBS, the show focuses on the Crawley family, a British aristocratic family, and their servants in early 20th-century Yorkshire. The seasons largely follow major historical events such as World War I and the Spanish influenza outbreak, but maintain a tighter focus on the inner dramas of both the Crawleys and their staff, punctuated by the steady decline of the aristocratic class and the modernization of such systems. The show was followed by a “Downton Abbey” film in 2019, which brings King George V and Queen Mary to Downton on a fraught royal visit.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” ushers the Crawley family onto the brink of the 1930s. Tom Branson (Allen Leech, “Bohemian Rhapsody”), husband to the late Sybil Branson (Jessica Brown Findlay, “Brave New World”) and son-in-law of the patriarch and matriarch of the Downton Estate, marries Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton, “The Imitation Game”), the illegitimate daughter of Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting and eventual inheritor of the wealthy Brampton Estate. The Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith, “The Lady in the Van”), mysteriously inherits a Southern French villa and takes the family to France to uncover the reason and, faced with the deterioration of the Abbey, Lady Mary Tolbert (Michelle Dockery, “Godless”) invites a film crew and its chaos to use the house as a set for revenue.
When asked for an opinion on “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” I have often referred to it as homey. This film is a cozy, comfortable watch, and it feels as though it was designed that way for fans of the franchise like myself. I love action and adventure films as much as the next person, but there is something about settling into a movie theater and knowing exactly what sort of film I am about to watch that is particularly special. I went in knowing that Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier, “The Ritual”), Downton’s butler, would continue to struggle with his homosexuality in the intolerance of the 1920s, that Lady Mary would once more take on the task of guiding the Estate through choppy seas and that the Dowager would continue to stand out from the ensemble cast with her sword-sharp wit and wisdom. And I was right about every element — Barrow befriends the actor Guy Dexter (Dominic West, “The Crown”) and leaves Downton to be his “companion,” Lady Mary becomes the “captain” of the financially-strapped Estate and the Dowager Countess’s sharp tongue leaves no man, or film, unscathed.
These are all echoes of the drama of the original television series; while some may call this repetitive, I say it’s comforting for fans. Nothing is so flashy or fresh that it feels like a deviation from the winning formula of the “Downton Abbey” universe. It’s a warm, gentle advancement of the plot and characters we have known and loved since the show’s premiere. I did not leave the movie theater feeling particularly moved or changed, but I did feel content. I had my worries that the title of “Downton Abbey: A New Era” would be too literal and introduce radical change and drama to a franchise that does not necessitate change or over-the-top dramatics. The film sticks to the franchise’s guns with a tight focus on the Crawley family and their servants with their respective struggles and joys, no matter how mundane, extraordinary or foreign to a modern audience.
The film also focuses heavily on the mystery of the Dowager Countess being gifted a villa in Southern France by a man she had known briefly decades earlier. The Dowager, however, then bequeaths this villa to her eldest grandchild, Sybil Branson (Fifi Hart, “Harry & Paul’s Story of the 2s”), because she has no aristocratic inheritance of her own. For the Dowager, a woman who has proven herself a true aristocrat and believer in their social order, this is a relatively radical move. She intentionally blurs class lines within her own family, and thus becomes a catalyst for the new era the film’s title promises to usher in. Her loyalty to love and family bonds over money and title offers a closer look at the warm humanity that drives “Downton Abbey: A New Era” and has always brought my mom and me to tears.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to exclude perhaps the most human element of “Downton Abbey: A New Era”: the death of the Dowager Countess herself. The matriarch of the Crawley family during the show and first film, the Dowager provided a steady, guiding hand for both the family and the overall “Downton Abbey” story. She was essential to the show in every way, and I considered her rather an immortal sort of character despite her old age. Her passing is immediately followed by the birth of Tom’s first child with Lucy, and while there have been many deaths and births in “Downton Abbey,” these most obviously mark the entry of the promised new era and bring characters and audience closest together.
The death of the Dowager also raises questions for the new era that both “Downton Abbey” and its fans find themselves in: Where do we go from here? Despite my all-consuming love for the franchise, I must admit that the time to lay production on new films or programs to rest is fast approaching. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” introduced the modern world promised in the title, and I might call it foolish for the franchise to extend beyond the time period that made it so special and mystical to us in the first place. I could do with one more film before we call it quits — one more for my mom and me to share, and to remind us that there is warmth and love in both nostalgia and the new era.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at email@example.com.