Violet Crawley didn't exactly die at the end of the first Downton Abbey film, but when the Dowager Countess, in the comically disapproving form of Maggie Smith, invited the relatives round for a sombre chat there was certainly an implication that she'd made her last appearance in the… "Were you about to say 'franchise,' young man? Are we now a motor car outlet?"
Her relatively sprightly reappearance at the beginning of this hectic sequel is, thus, comparable to all those times Tom managed to emerge unscathed after Jerry detonated dynamite in that cat’s earholes.
If she can get through this she can get through anything. I gave up counting when I had tabulated eight competing plots and subplots — someone is in love with a married someone else, someone’s father may not be who we thought, someone might be pregnant, someone (cough!) is looking awfully tired, and so on — each conveyed in scenes so hurried they would make even TikTok users dizzy.
No elderly countess can be expected to look down her nose at quite so much.
The overarching dual structure is less complicated. Observing the ancient convention that, from Are You Being Served? right up to The Inbetweeners and People Just Do Nothing, has seen British TV shows go on holidays for their big-screen incarnation, the series sends Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (a slimmed-down Hugh Bonneville), and some members of the family to a villa in the South of France.
It seems that a former acquaintance of Violet's has, for reasons eventually TikTokked out at breakneck pace, left the place to the earl's granddaughter — son of soup-scoffing former Irish republican Tom Branson (Allen Leech) — and the family think it polite to touch base with the current occupants.
Meanwhile, a film crew has arrived to shoot what Robert, before making for the Riviera, refers to (I think) as a “chronophotograph” on the estate. While one set of nobs works through a more sedate version of Tender is the Night, the other, more heavily soaked in servants, accommodate themselves to the demands of vulgar Wardour Street types.
Dominic West is superb as a porcelain-toothed matinee idol. Laura Haddock is equally good in a problematic role as his cockney co-star Myrna Dalgleish.
With no time for plot development, characters talk us through the sort of synopses you might encounter in a Wikipedia entry. When it becomes clear deep into the shoot that talkies are taking over and the current film is already obsolete, someone explains that talkies are taking over and the current film is already obsolete (you won’t need to be told that the dowager countess wonders acidly why anyone should want the awful things to speak).
Fun is made of the abrasively-voiced Myrna as an already madly busy film borrows plot points from Singin’ in the Rain.
That character’s treatment reminds us how oddly Downton Abbey has always engaged with class. The aristocratic characters sound nothing like such people would have sounded between the wars — not nearly so clipped. The servants rarely slip into deep Yorkshire dialect. Everyone, upstairs and downstairs, is merrily bourgeois together — content to hug and kiss as if parlourmaids cleaned the dishes as a favour without any money changing hands.
Only Myrna, with her cockney vowels and “vulgar” manners, seems exempt from the middle-class consensus and, for her sins, she receives equal opprobrium from countesses and scullery staff.
Yet, for all the moral compromises and narrative confusion, you couldn’t say A New Era is boring. There is a constant sense of excellent actors making the best of indifferent material.
Smith has been doing this for half a century because nobody in that period has done it any better. Bonneville’s pathological benevolence distracts from the Earl’s social complacency. The handsome Leech digests his character’s mulligatawny, consommé and cock-a-leekie with reliable charm.
If you don’t like the story you’re currently watching another will be along in 20 seconds. There are worse ways of filling time.
Opens on April 29th