By Eleanor Ringel Cater
” That’s life is not it ? says Dowager Countess Violet Grantham (the incomparable Maggie Smith). “Overcome the unexpected.”
But it’s not “Downton Abbey: A New Era”. It all depends on what is expected.
And for once, that’s a good thing. A very good thing.
The second feature generated by the hit PBS series, “A New Era” turns tea and crumpets into comfort food. After the traumas of a pandemic, a mob attack on Congress and a gallon of petrol that costs as much as a starter home, the graceful insularity of life as a British aristocrat – or even as a servant of a British aristocrat – in the late 1920s comes off as a welcome return to an unfazed world that knew what it was all about.
Not that there aren’t any problems for the Lord and Lady Crawley and company, but they’re more like leaky rooftops, vulgar filmmakers, and mysterious legacies.
“A New Era” offers two scenarios. In one, the Dowager Countess is bequeathed a villa in the south of France by a man with whom she shared a brief romance more than half a century ago. The man’s widow (Nathalie Baye) is understandably not amused, but while the Dowager Countess is somewhat perplexed, she’s no fool either. “Do I seem to refuse a villa in the south of France? she remarks.
However, said widow invites the family to come see, so half of the cast, including the Crawleys (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), their essential butler Carson (Jim Carter), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the Irish upstart Tom (Allen Leech) and his wife Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), and several others are heading to the Riviera. Their mission: to try to understand why this mysterious man bequeathed such real estate to a member of their family.
Meanwhile, at home, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and half a dozen other familiar faces greet a film company that has hired Downton Abbey for their new production (remember that leaky roof?). Among the not particularly welcome visitors are an attractive director (Hugh Dancy), a dashing man (Dominic West) and a snobby, spoiled woman (Laura Haddock). In a mostly intact plot from “Singin’ in the Rain,” the advent of talkies casts a long shadow over what was supposed to be a silent movie.
But in soap opera tradition at its best, what happens matters much less than who it happens to. And whether you’re a longtime fan or a vaguely curious newcomer, ‘A New Era’ features a cast of splendid English actors doing beautifully English things back when it was normal to behave so shamelessly at the top. /downstairs.
The film coos enough with the charm of tea. Oh look, the usually unflappable Carson gets seasick crossing the English Channel. Oh look, the director is falling in love with married Lady Mary. Oh look, the servants get all fancy when the movie suddenly needs extras for a banquet scene.
Admittedly, the non-fan may still have a hard time sorting everyone out and may not be so enamored with the dumbest moments.
But “A New Era” does its job and does it well. Plus, it’s weird to think that once upon a time, this kind of Merchant/Ivory knockoff was considered serious film and comic book epics were considered escapism.
These days, with the Marvel Universe raking in millions and rare period pieces, something like “A New Era” has become the new breakout.
“I feel like I’ve been transported to another planet,” Dame Maggie intones at one point.
U.S. too. And that, I guess, is the call. Overpowering heroism is, in its own way, what we expect in cinema. People wearing jewelry and casual automobiles, now, that’s something completely different. Something we miss maybe more than we thought.