Marvel isn’t the only successful multiplatform pop-culture franchise with generations of characters, iconic personalities, interwoven storylines and consistent quality.
There’s also “Downton Abbey.”
After airing for six seasons on PBS in the early 2010s, when binge-watching shows was just becoming a thing, the British period drama has found new life on the big screen – first with a hit 2019 film and now in a continuation of the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their colorful staff with “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters Friday).
Directed by Simon Curtis and written by series creator Julian Fellowes, the sequel is a charming and soapy new chapter filled with enjoyably dry humor (mostly courtesy of the fantastic Maggie Smith), some heartbreak, a dash of mystery and a history lesson from old-school Hollywood.
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Set in the late 1920s, “A New Era” begins by picking up two threads from the last film: Tom (Allen Leech) and his new beloved Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) enjoy a lavish English wedding, and Violet (Smith), the feisty Dowager Countess with the rapier wit who’s recently received a not-great bill of health, drops a bomb on her loved ones. It turns out that a long-ago flame has died and inexplicably bequeathed her a villa in the south of France, though his widow (Nathalie Baye) is pondering legal action to contest it.
Laura Carmichael) and lovably grumpy butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) on a trip to check out the place and figure out their connection with this mystery Frenchman. Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) – Violet’s granddaughter and the head of the estate’s operations – has to deal with a film crew that’s using the palatial Downton as a setting for a silent movie.
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The Downton staff – from excitable cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to loyal lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) – is atwitter surrounded by celebrities. But while dashing actor Guy Dexter (Dominic West) is a kindly sort, his co-star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) proves to be high maintenance and director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) is a ball of stress. And when the flick is flung into jeopardy mid-production, Lady Mary and unlucky valet Mr. Molseley (Kevin Doyle) both find themselves playing essential roles to save it.
“A New Era” packs a ton of subplots (and even some farce) into 125 minutes, but it all zooms along at a nice pace, paying off longtime character arcs – especially for butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) – and beginning new narratives. As with the latter-day Marvel entries, this might not be the film to hop on for “Downton” newbies. But even if you don’t know the Earl of Grantham from the Marquess of Hexham, the picturesque views and period costumes are lovely to behold, and the story interestingly works in the emergence of “talkies” and their effect on the film business of the time.
Then there’s Smith, whose delightfully snippy character – alongside verbal sparring partner Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) – has always been a “Downton” highlight. “Don’t steer me. I’m not a racing car,” Violet quips at someone who dares to help her along. Dockery’s Lady Mary, whose steely facade masks the occasional grapple with self-confidence, is another high mark in a coterie of memorable personalities: With her husband off gallivanting in Europe, Mary forms a tempting bond with Barber.
Bookended by love and loss and boasting a plethora of life changes, the new “Downton” keeps calm and carries on with solid storytelling, likable Brits and renewed importance of family over class.