New Downton Abbey film has luxurious sets, costumes and meals – but the real draw is Maggie Smith
It goes on and on, Downton Abbey. So it should. For its creator, Julian Fellowes – Baron Fellowes of West Stafford since David Cameron raised him in 2011 – is a big believer in the hereditary principle, after all. Downton Abbey ran for six series on television between 2010 and 2015, covering the years from 1912 to 1925, becoming by far the most successful costume drama since Brideshead revisited30 years earlier.
In 2019, the Downton Abbey the film took the story forward to 1927, when the King and Queen came to spend a night at Downton, sending the servants into a frenzy of excitement, devastated when they learned that the Royal Family were bringing in their own staff , but revived when they managed to serve their monarch after all.
Now here Downton Abbey: A New Eramoving to 1928. With typical largesse, Fellowes created not one but two main storylines this time, and merged them (he attributes his success to maintaining the many strands of Downtown to study the multiple narratives of Robert Altman’s films, before writing the Oscar-winning screenplay of Gosford Park for him).
A film company comes to Downton to shoot a silent film, causing consternation above and below. “Crude and vulgar actors ate at the table when the King of England once sat!” exclaims Carson the butler (Jim Carter). “It smacks of the worst excesses of the French Revolution!” But although Carson would rather be dead than tolerate such outrage, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is persuaded to allow the filming, since he will pay for a much-needed new roof, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) shows him, in l taking to the attics to see the drops.
[See also: How Nicolas Cage embraced self-parody]
How will the family bear the intrusion? Plot number two comes to the rescue. Violet, the Dowager Countess, (Maggie Smith) reveals that she has just been left a capping villa on the Riviera by a French aristocrat with whom she had a brief affair in 1864. Much of the family, plus Carson , leaves to investigate the property, avoiding the production of the film. A place in the sun with knobs, therefore, and no budget worries either. Lots of fun with Carson’s splendid insularity (“Thank you, sir, but we Brits are never too hot to wear the right clothes,” he says, nearly dying of heatstroke ). And there’s no end to luxury by proxy: another big house, more fabulous outfits, fine dining, so much the lure of Downtown always having been such a vicarious indulgence. It’s barely an editing sequence, practically a tableau.
Content from our partners
Meanwhile, back at the Abbey, where Lady Mary and the Dowager hold the fort, film production has come to a halt, since talkies have just arrived and no one wants silent films anymore. Downton to the rescue! Lady Mary has the brilliant idea of transforming the silent film into a talking film! And clumsy former footman Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) has unsuspected talents as a screenwriter.
[See also: With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven proves he is as outrageous and iconoclastic as ever]
There is still a problem, however. Guy Dexter (Dominic West), the suave and secretly gay frontman, delivers his lines perfectly – but star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) turns out to be a rude commoner. Noblesse oblige however – and Lady Mary expresses her part exquisitely, saving the day. And when the extras go on strike, well, the servants step in, dress up as lords and ladies and dine at the high table, for that delicious thrill of transgression.
Downtown is, of course, very much geared towards the export market (half of the $194 million box office debut film was in the US and Canada) and it continues to show the lower races just how our class system was a superb creation on its own, even more truly savored by the treasures at the bottom of it than the good sorts at the top that they were lucky enough to serve.
For those of us who already know this good news, however, the great appeal of Downtown next is, once again, Maggie Smith. In the past, Dame Maggie has been rather disparaging about her role, saying that this and her turn in Harry Potter didn’t really play at all, that she had never watched the show and that she didn’t see the point of a Downtown movie (“I think it’s drying, I don’t know what it could be”, etc.). She even said what she wanted most was “a death scene.”
But if she visibly disdains the role she plays here, that only heightens the impact of her gruesome rebuffs, occasional put-downs, and unrepentant brutality. When, seeing the film-within-a-film being made, she says “I prefer to earn my living in a mine”, one can only believe her. Such a star.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is in theaters now
[See also: Harry Wootliff’s True Things is a lacklustre tale of erotic obsession]