Downton Abbey: A New Era

When we last saw the Crawley family, they were celebrating the end of a successful royal visit, and when we reunite with them, a new, more modern visit is on the docket. At least, it is for half of the cast. The other half is off on a whirlwind adventure to Paris in order to figure out why the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith) has inherited a villa in the south of France from what amounts to a long weekend with a man she says nothing untoward happened with. Scandal, of course, is in the air, and the Crawley’s, and the unfortunate family in France left without their winter getaway, are vying for the answer to the mystery. The Marquis de Montmirail (Jonathan Zaccaï) and his mother, Madame Montmirail (Nathalie Baye) are the new players in this half of the storyline, taking vastly different approaches to the possibility that Robert Crowley (Hugh Bonneville) is the illegitimate son of the former Marquis.

Meanwhile, Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) and the other half of the cast (essentially the entire staff of servants) are playing host to a film crew that is hoping to use Downton Abbey as a major set piece in their film production. As is typical of dramatic films, problems arise that threaten the very existence of the film project, and everybody involved. The major players on the film crew, providing three new roles are lead actor Guy Dexter (played by Dominic Cooper), leading lady Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), and charming director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy). Their plotlines intimately tie in with Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) who’s still smarting from the offscreen rebuff of his love interest from the previous film, Daisy Parker (Sophie McShera) – recently married to Andy Parker – and the effervescent Lady Mary.

Daisy Parker, per usual, acts as a modern-day lens on how the world of 20th century England should be, or at the very least could be. She questions convention and tradition, offering a refreshing viewpoint that allows for debate on and off the screen. With Tom Branson (Allen Leech) distractingly besotted with his new wife, Lucy Branson (Tuppence Middleton) the former maid and daughter of Maud Bagshaw (played once more by Imelda Staunton), somebody has to offer a running commentary on the idiosyncrasies of the recent past. Former butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) is given another push back into the world of the Crawley’s and joins the Earl, his Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), his daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her husband Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton), and the aforementioned Maud Bagshaw, as well as Cora’s lady’s maid, Phyliss Baxter (whose subdued portrayal by Raquel Cassidy always soothes).

As with the previous entry into what we hope is a long-running film continuation (short of a multi-season return to television), there are minor plotlines that thread throughout the rest of the film alongside its two major stories. The absence of Matthew Goode in this film is a noted detail from beginning to end, playing a part in an underlying theme throughout the film proper and its backstory, desire versus duty. A desire for self-indulgence, a desire for freedom, a desire for attention. Will Mary succumb to her desire for Jack Barber or stay the course, despite the difficulties in her marriage with the oft out-of-town husband.

Over the course of the movie, it is mentioned that, with Violet’s impending death, Mary is the one who is most like the fearsome Dowager Countess. The one who will take on her duty in the family and her role in the household. How that theme of desire versus duty gives us the answer to Mary’s driving question long before it could become an issue. For everybody else, the shocking answer is…! As if I’d tell.

From the second that Guy Dexter appeared on screen, with most of the ladies on screen fawning over him, I immediately pegged him as gay. Intuition be damned, I was clamoring for Mr. Barrow to finally get as happy an ending as was possible. So, too, it seemed, was Mary Crawley. Next to Myrna, it was clear that there was going to be a large hurdle for the film production to overcome, and a history aficionado would have been able to pinpoint it almost exactly. The silent film era was coming to an end and the “talkies” were on the rise, endangering the production and one starlet’s career. As was common for the time, actors and actresses were not chosen for their speaking ability or even their acting capabilities, but for their appearance. One could have an atrocious voice and still bag the leading role in every film, as long as nobody expected them to speak. So, we come to Myrna’s problem, she has the face, but not the voice.

Which allowed Mary to seamlessly (almost, a tantrum from a star is never out of the realm of possibility in Hollywood) step in and provide the voice for Myrna Dalgleish. This was all in service of her driving storyline, will she or won’t she succumb to the director’s advances, and the fact that they gave Mary more agency in that storyline was phenomenal. Too many times, an affair storyline, or even a romance, is the entirety of the effort put into a woman’s story arc. Having it as a side piece (pun definitely intended) was refreshing, to say the least.

Throughout the side plot in France, the main characters continue to enjoy the comforts of their life back at Downton Abbey – leisure, carefully catered meals, and lavish parties that go late into the evening. They also take some time to explore the newest edition to their estate, the villa in the south of France, which holds a mystery all its own – the central plot, really. By bifurcating its storylines between Downton Abbey and the villa in the south of France, the rather large ensemble was given time to shine, although not everybody gets their time in the spotlight, they aren’t outright ignored. Sometimes, that’s all you can hope for when you’re a part of an ensemble.

Because of how the film was set up, though, other aspects had to be put to the side. When viewed together with the first film and treated as two supersized episodes of a seventh season, the flaws are smoothed over. After all, there would be large swaths of episodes where certain characters never interacted outside of one of the ever-present dinners. In the end, though, I truly missed seeing the constant back and forth between Mary and Edith, a plot point that was given far too little screen time. Other plotlines are introduced without enough room to breathe, let alone stand on their own – I’m looking at Cora’s medical scare, alright – but, as mentioned in the review for the first film, movies have a limited run time.

You have to pick and choose what moments you want to hit, and I’d take a subpar medical storyline any day if it meant I could see Mr. Molesley and Phyliss Baxter get the ending they deserved from the second they met. Just as well, they may not have taken center stage in this film, but the love story between Tom Branson and Lucy Branson was greatly appreciated. A truly subtle, carefully cultivated love story – it feels real, and that is high praise in and of itself.

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