It’s tempting to say that “Downton Abbey: A New Era” has finally jumped the shark — an entirely inappropriate phrase for such a high-minded sequel. But its multiple story lines — and the insistence on giving every single character upstairs and downstairs a moment on the big screen — makes for something of a muddle.
Oh, nothing any reviewer can say will keep the “Downton” faithful away from the theaters. Some will go just to hear Maggie Smith deliver the requisite verbal zingers as the Dowager Countess — the grand old lady of the brood. And in many ways, this one will please the loyal fans.
For others, however, it may play out like a film determined to give each character a fresh start, whether it’s a marriage, a proposal, a come-away-with-me-and-be-my-love offer, a death or even a new home.
The new home is key here, for the latest Downton installment takes place in two locations, at the Downton castle in England and at a villa in the south of France.
As it turns out, the Dowager Countess may have had a fling with a French marquis. He has remembered her all of these years, even though he has married and had a family. The widow isn’t amused that he has left the countess the villa and all of its belongings. But the widow’s son seems resigned to honor his father’s wishes and not contest the will. They do, after all, have lots of money with or without the villa. Naturally, they don’t ever say so.
News of the countess’ inheritance reaches Downton Abbey just as a Hollywood filmmaking teams offers Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) an exorbitant offer to film at the estate. Lady Mary needs a new roof and decides to say yes. But Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) decide to leave the castle during the film shooting and settle matters in France. We must do what we must do, you know.
Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) can’t abide the Hollywood intruders, so he goes with his loyal master, as do Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Tom (Allen Leech) and his new bride Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), whose wedding opens the film. It appears that Lucy is an illegitimate child of the Grantham clan and the countess has decided that she and Tom should inherit the villa from her.
So off we go to the south of France, with Carson mumbling about the French being “very French” and worrying about the need to speak anything other than English. (Cue laughter from those of us who love the haughty English. Sigh.)
Back at the castle, meanwhile, Lady Mary quickly gets a new admirer, the movie director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy). Meanwhile, the male star of the Hollywood movie, Guy Dexter (a not-too-closeted gay actor), makes some moves on Barrow (Robert James-Collier). And then there’s the female star, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), a blonde bombshell with a voice that could peel paint from the wall.
And guess what, the movie producers call England and say that they need to halt production because a talkie name “The Jazz Singer” has signaled the end of silent pictures. What’s a director to do when his star actress sounds awful in real life?
Cue “Singin’ in the Rain,” with Lady Mary stepping in to do the voiceovers, just like the perky Debbie Reynolds. Except Lady Mary has a smoother, upper-crust accent, of course.
It’e enough to make the movie director ask Lady Mary for a kiss. She declines, of course.
Will any of the banal plot points in the script by Julian Fellowes keep people away? Nah, director Simon Curtis goes through the motions and delivers a proper movie paying homage to the British upper class. Some people think that’s just grand.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” opens in multiple theaters in Austin on May 20.