Julian Fellowes loves the British aristocracy. Much more than fellow Brit and anglophile Peter Morgan (who gave us The Crown, The Queen, and a half dozen films, shows, and plays about Queen Elizabeth II and the House of Windsor), Fellowes has defined his career by chronicling the upstairs/downstairs class system of Great Britain in the early 20th century. He first gained worldwide attention in 2001 when he collaborated with Robert Altman on Gosford Park, a withering social satire set in an English manor in the 1930s. He then created Downton Abbey, a massively successful series focusing on, you guessed it, an English manor at the turn of the century, only without Altman’s trademark cynicism and masterful direction.
Six seasons and one sleeper hit feature film later, Fellowes is back with more servants and stiff upper lips with Downton Abbey: A New Era. What was once a sly look at the often tense relations between the classes as British society slowly woke up from the Victorian era has now devolved into long-winded fan service, with characters whose stories have long ago wrapped up standing around trying to find something, anything, to do while the threat of real change is teased but never delivered.
The result is a movie that bears a surprising but unfortunate resemblance to Sex and the City 2, another sequel to a surprise hit theatrical extension of a beloved series that had no reason to exist other than to make money. A New Era isn’t as bad as that movie, but it’s just as boring and unmemorable, which may be worse since you don’t have anything to make fun of as you wait for the movie to be over.
In the first Downton Abbey movie, the main plot revolved around the anticipated arrival of King George and Queen Mary, who united both master and servant with the shared goal of impressing royalty. A New Era repeats this plot point but substitutes real Kings and Queens with Hollywood royalty, as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, watching paint dry) agrees to allow a film crew to shoot a silent picture there to fund a badly needed roof repair. Meanwhile, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, clearly pissed off she has to play this role again) suddenly reveals she’s inherited a villa in the South of France, which sends half the cast on an ultimately pointless quest to discover why someone who met Violet Crawley a half-century ago would leave her such a generous gift. The answer is even more disappointing than you care to believe.
There’s also a death, a birth, a marriage proposal, an homage to Singin’ in the Rain, an awkward (and anachronistic) stand against gay injustice, and a character who is about to die but is saved by a deus ex machina so sudden it might give you whiplash. It sounds like a lot is going on, so why does the movie feel like such a dull drag? The director, Simon Curtis, directs in the Downton Abbey house style, which is part of the problem. A New Era doesn’t feel like a movie but two lost episodes clumsily slapped together. The pacing is slack, which drains all the narrative energy from the picture.
Much of the returning cast sleepwalk their way through their roles, with most given nothing new to do except stand around and wait for their next turn in front of the camera. Faring best is Robert James-Collier’s Thomas Barrow, who has a full mini-storyline with a resolution, something which had eluded the character in the series. Of the new additions to this film, only Dominic West as the closeted silent film star Guy Dexter has anything resembling a pulse. It’s no coincidence that these two characters both share the same romantic storyline and make the most impact from the crowded, mostly beige cast.
A New Era‘s adherence to Downton Abbey‘s rigid formula is unfortunate, as there is real potential for the franchise to tackle juicer material than a hastily invented romantic subplot and teasing deaths and disasters that never really come. A good part of the movie is once-nasty characters apologizing to each other and making up for earlier sins. The most noticeable victim of this is the Dowager herself, who became one of the series’ most popular characters precisely because of her wicked comebacks. Here, hobbled with a fatal illness introduced in the last movie, she’s been de-fanged, and that’s a bummer: No one wants to see Maggie Smith act nice. Where’s the fun in that?
The movie ends on the cusp of the 1930s, right around when Gosford Park was set. That film found ripe material in its probing of a dying class system, which wouldn’t last much longer. Fellowes teases change several times through A New Era, but doesn’t act on it. Nothing changes in this movie, and the result is an unnecessary film as petrified and stale as the upper-class society Fellowes once ruthlessly dissected.
Downton Abbey: A New Era premieres today in theaters nationwide.
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