The only intriguing thing about Downton Abbey: A New Era is its title. For at least a couple of reasons – without ruining any of the film's minor plot points – it should really be called The End of an Era, as there's nothing "new" about the setting or its characters. Yet already there's talk of a third big-screen installment of the beloved British television series, which is really going to be beating a dead horse unless creator/writer Julian Fellowes dares to plunge the aristocratic Crawleys and their loyal servants into the Great Depression and World War II. Now that would be a new era. But for now, the outside world hardly exists beyond the Crawleys' clattering teacups.
Like its 2019 predecessor, A New Era is essentially a two-hour episode of Downton Abbey, and like its predecessor, it's less compelling than any given episode of the show. Fellowes sets his sequel in 1930 – no one is uttering the word "Depression" yet – and breaks up the usual household drama with two rather preposterous premises:
First, the ancient Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith, getting all the wittiest lines as usual), who we've learned from the last film is slowly dying, is informed that a Frenchman with whom she had a brief romance some 55-60 years earlier has just bequeathed her his villa in the south of France. And thus her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville, distractingly tanned and slimmed down) heads down there with most of the family and some of the servants, basically just to give the audience a change of scenery.
Meanwhile, a British film crew offers to rent out Downton to shoot a new movie, since cameras are now, in 1930, mobile enough to use on location. The Crawleys could do with a little extra cash to fix their leaky roof, so they reluctantly consent, with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) keeping an eye on things. Enter a charming director (Hugh Bonneville) and two famous British actors (Laura Haddock and Dominic West), who shake up the house and its inhabitants in various lighthearted ways.
Fellowes's main goal here seems to be to couple up all the characters who haven't yet coupled up. Since most of the characters have indeed coupled up already, there's no tension or heartbreak to explore. Mostly everybody just sits around, happy with their mates, oohing and aahing at sunny France and/or wacky showbiz folk. What little conflict does arise is easily quashed. And while I had no expectations that A New Era would do anything shocking – watching this film is like having afternoon tea and cakes – its blatant insignificance ultimately annoyed me. You really get the sense that the movie was made for no other reason than to fatten up some bank accounts. Fellowes, et al are hardly even trying.