Film Review: “Downton Abbey: A New Era”

I attended the second movie which follows the six PBS seasons with a friend who isn’t nearly as obsessed with the series as I. But afterwards he said, “I can see why you like living in that world.”

What’s not to like? Beautiful costumes of the 20s, the men in white tie and tails, the women with long gloves and jewels, stately mansions, elegant meals, lush lawns, sparkly Mediterranean vistas. A gun never appears; though arguments happen, they occur only with the utmost civility. Almost everyone behaves graciously; the characters are nuanced so that no one is all good or bad.

Before some grim justice-advocate breaks in to criticize, I know. I realize it’s a lost world and it was probably quite unfair to many people at the time. But haven’t films always offered us a vicarious experience of Hollywood glamor? As Marah Eakin wrote in Chicago Reader: “‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ is cinematic escapism at its finest and perhaps that’s all it should be.”

This one occurs between two world wars. While people are still suffering the after-effects of the first, few have any premonition that another major conflict looms on the horizon. So most characters can focus on the revelation that their ageing granny has been left a home in the south of France by a man so besotted by her beauty, he didn’t forget her for over 50 years. With no zoom nor e-mail, that leads to an exploratory party checking out the mansion, improbable but handy for the narrative arc.

In typical “Downton” style, simultaneous happenings and twisty plots keep us on our toes. With swift flashes between two countries, one story line follows the group in France, the other a group at home, where a movie company takes over the noble estate for filming. (The roof is sadly in need of repair; one look at the pots in the attic collecting drips convinces the reluctant Earl to take the considerable money offered by the film company.) That eventually leads to a marvelous role reversal, with the servants as film extras dressed to the teeth in 18th century finery, dining “upstairs.”

The old favorite characters are back: Lady Mary, despite her regal distance, the spine of the family, Tom Branson who always seems to say something kind, and everyone’s favorite, the Dowager Countess. As Bill Newcott writes in The Saturday Evening Post: “Here Violet (Maggie Smith) is again, still dying, yet peppery as ever, holding court in the parlour and hurling droll Violetisms that stick to their targets like clumps of warm figgy pudding.”

I’ve always been impressed by the fact that despite the rigid social hierarchy, some members of the Crawley family have closer friendships with their servants than with their family or friends. Both happy and sad events are celebrated by the entire household. Fans who’ve caught prophetic hints will be pleased by the Shakespearean device of tying up loose ends with new marriages, upstairs and down.

If one believes as I do, and Richard Rohr describes eloquently in Immortal Diamond, the natural trajectory of history leads to resurrection, then the new baby’s appearance at the film’s end is no accident. We who’ve watched the whole family: Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Lord and Lady Grantham endure tragedy are pleased by their joy because someday, it may be ours too. It’s not heavy theology; it’s story, but it points in the direction of new life and goodness. It gives us hope in the unfolding Mystery. Wasn’t that what C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien tried to achieve with their fiction too?

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