Avid fans probably know exactly where the period drama Downton Abbey is actually filmed — a sprawling 1,000-acre estate known as Highclere Castle in northern Hampshire, standing in for the fictional Crawley grounds. It’s not unusual these days for idle English and Scottish castles to be rented out to film period movies and series. After all, even those with landed titles need to earn some extra scratch.
But in Downton Abbey: A New Era, renting out the swank family castle is the concept, as the Crawley family — still including Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess Violet Grantham, her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville), 7th Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), plus their eldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery, lately seen in Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal) — agree to allow a British film company to film a silent movie (set in a casino, scandalously!) inside their ancestral home one summer.
That’s almost a meta move for a franchise that has gone through six TV seasons and now two movies. Julian Fellowes’ fantasy world of Downton Abbey still has significant pull for viewers because it’s cleverly written and bathed in human emotion, but also because it depicts a world tinged in nostalgia for things of the past. (Let us not dwell upon how nostalgia’s tinge can sometimes be foggy or distorted, so soon after May 9.)
As the aging Dowager Countess deals with the unexpected inheritance of a French villa (whose owner may or may not have spent a few eyebrow-raising weeks with her back in her long-ago youth), the remaining Crawleys are left to fend with a film crew that presents its own set of problems. There are humorous bits with household members and servants unaware that they’re ruining shots. The two main Hollywood actors (played by Dominic West and Laura Haddock) leave everybody starstruck. And as the film crew settles in, the director (Hugh Dancy) becomes a bit smitten with Lady Mary.
The humorous subplot about film production draws on bits from Singin’ in the Rain (the MGM musical that shows what happens when the new Talkie era ruins some actors’ film careers as people actually get to hear their real voices onscreen), and it also delves into the magic and allure of filmmaking: how scripts evolve, how voice dubbing is done, how extras are rounded up.
As always, Maggie Smith gets some of the best lines. Her Violet provides the peppery spice to what might otherwise be a saccharine domestic sitting-room drama. (One of her parting lines alone is worth the viewing.)
And as always, Downton Abbey exists in a world where people tend to be a little bit nicer, a bit more human than they can be in real life; even the comforts are a little bit more comforting than in real life. The franchise fits like a warm, cozy jumper in that way. It’s a place where the stakes are never too devastating — a health scare here, a question of lineage there — but nothing really earth-shattering.
Downton Abbey is also a place where the division of classes never really carries the sting of real life. It’s a world where opportunity still presents itself to those who give an honest effort and try hard in life. (It doesn’t really dwell too much on the huge mass of people on earth who are actually consigned to poverty.) In Downton Abbey, the difference between rich and poor is merely the distance between upstairs and downstairs.
As Downton creator Fellowes puts it, “If people ask is it enough to just entertain, then the answer is yes. I also hope that every now and then we can make them think about the disparity of backgrounds in an equal society, or make them think of the difficulties of being homosexual in a period when it was still illegal. We touch on those sorts of subjects but the prime purpose of the film is to give the audience a really good evening out.”
And for those seeking an escape into a reassuring world of familiar people (and royalty to boot), Downton Abbey: A New Era casts a spell that almost touches on grace. For Filipino audiences, there are plenty of moments of kilig and torpe couples, this time in their autumn years, trying to pluck up the courage to tell each other how they really feel; and there are others trying to find the courage to live life in a way that’s honest to their true nature (such as Barrow). It’s… emotionally aspirational. In a good way.
But it’s also economically aspirational, and there are moments in Downton Abbey: The New Era where I think about how Filipinos can be dazzled by insane levels of wealth, and the magical glamour that attaches itself to it. Say, when the servants are so spellbound by the arriving film stars that they overlook completely how incredibly rude some of them are, acting as though the servant class doesn’t even exist. (Of course, all of this is sorted out over the course of two hours.)
What’s clever in A New Era is how the fairy dust of nostalgic Hollywood reveals itself to be mostly artifice, from makeup to fake accents. As the Silent Film era ends practically overnight, lead actors Guy Dexter (a rakish West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Haddock, bringing her best cockney game) are revealed as just ordinary people who’ve lucked into stardom. And while most of the Crawleys are off-summering in the south of France, Lady Mary does her best to run the household, even as a very modern film director draws her further into the movie world.
As they say in Hollywood, that’s entertainment. And that’s not a bad thing, as long as there’s room for things that are real. To its credit, Downton Abbey: A New Era manages to avoid spreading too much Vaseline on the lens.
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