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Downton Abbey: A New Era (Film Review)

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Abbey has opened its doors to us once more, as the beloved turn-of-the-century ITV show enters A New Era. In many ways, television shows like The Crown and Bridgerton owe a lot to Downton for paving the way through its low-action yet high-drama relationships, enhanced by outmoded societal rules and hierarchy. As creator Julian Fellowes turns his attention to the across-the-pond spin-off The Gilded Age, this may be 's final chapter.

If you're a fan of Downton, you'll be unsurprised to know A New Era reconnects us with our characters almost immediately where we left them, all innately characteristic re-introductions for the big screen. We are quickly assured that beloved relationships like the dynamics of Ms Patmore and Daisy, or Mr Carson and Lady Mary have withstood their individual development. The advantage of picking up where we left off is that A New Era expediently picks up those loose threads from the previous film, neatly tying them together in a satisfying manner.

Modernisation lies at the core of this sequel in many ways, especially with how Mary has developed in line with the sequel. Her decision in allowing the estate to be used for the production of a silent film emphasizes a shift in her priorities, but production is cut short as the burgeoning film industry of the 30s now prioritises ‘talkies'. We see Mary's innovative revival of production invite the modernisation of society and culture straight to the Crawleys' doorstep.

It's clear that Fellowes is aware that this cavalcade of characters must face the future at some point, and is uncompromising with how he addresses this. The film continues with low-stakes, high-drama tensions, including the horror expressed by the presence of film crews and celebrity guests throughout the manor, especially by the ever-conservative Carson. There's also the surprisingly progressive acceptance of the scandalous implications of Sybbie's inheritance, reflecting that even this sacrosanct aristocracy must eventually adapt to the new cultural age.

One of the more intriguing character arcs that occur over A New Era is Lord Grantham's shift of priorities from assets and money toward his family, consolidating his gradual evolution over the course of the series and signifying a redistribution of responsibility and authority within the family. Likewise, one of the greatest advancements in A New Era,—and the clearest reflection of modernisation—is the more accepting attitudes toward homosexuality, particularly from Mary. Fellowes has transformed Downton Abbey itself into a microcosm of the changing world of pre-depression Britain, with the household's inevitable acclimation integral to every fibre of its narrative. Fans of the show's lavish and richly antique design will gush over the continued dedication to A New Era's costume design, with a new location abroad and the ever-creative context of a film-within-a-film being created.

With both subtle and overt fluctuations in well-known characters' wardrobes and the introduction of flashier celebrity fashions (with a brief feature of Victorian costume), fashion historians will get a real kick out of unravelling every facet of the attire. There is also a strong picturesque quality to the cinematography and production design that fills the landscapes with serene, antiquated magic, similar to the very British talkies that are spotlighted in A New Era.

The sequel itself takes a more humorous approach to the material, likely as a joyful and potentially final celebration of the culmination of a classical franchise. As usual, Dame Maggie Smith is an absolute riot, with the smartest comedic timing of anyone in interwar Britain—A New Era also gives us some unseen depth into Violet, adding a further dimension to the unequivocally adored matriarch.

However, perhaps out of self-conscious awareness of its potential finality, A New Era feels strangely paced at times, with increasingly jarring transitions. It begins slightly glacial, giving us time to simply be with our favourite characters, but suddenly remembers that this may be the last time they ever interact together, and thus rushes to assert a conciliatory ending for almost every character. Such a frantic rush for conclusion leads to fulfilled character arcs, but perhaps too tidily so; everyone receives a definitive happy ending, but that very completeness feels rather too storybook compared to the paradigmatic complexity of Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey: A New Era remains a fantastic send-off for fans of the series that celebrates everything about the iconic British favourite. It's a whimsical snapshot into antiquated British culture that feels romantically historical, and it's clear Fellowes knew how each character's journey would end, and where they should be. If this is the last time Downton has opened its doors, then it was an absolutely wonderful event.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is now available in UK cinemas.