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Welcome back 'Downton'

The cast of 'Downton Abbey: A New Era.' Photo credit: Focus Features

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They really could have called this one Downton Abbey: Same Old Familiar Faces, and I mean that in the best way possible, because it's been such an unexpected treat to have not one but two feature-length continuations of the Crawley Family Saga. For while Julian Fellowes' meticulously appointed, wickedly funny, everlastingly endearing, gorgeously photographed British historical drama ended on such a lovely grace note as a series back in 2015, the Downton Abbey movie in 2019 and this new sequel are as warming and welcoming as afternoon tea by the fireplace in the Drawing Room. 

As was the case with the first Downton Abbey movie, which grossed some $200 million worldwide on a reported budget of just $13 million (and that's why we're getting another chapter in the story), A New Era isn't really necessary or vital to the saga's canon, and it will hold relatively scant appeal for those who haven't been along for the ride since the series debuted a dozen years ago. 

Ah, but for those of us (and there are obviously many) who have reveled in the elevated soap opera antics set against the backdrop of a magnificent Yorkshire country estate in the early parts of the 20th century, we'll take a new movie every few years until the timeline reaches the 1960s and a 75-year-old Lady Mary is fretting about the hippie farmers on the estate and some lads called the Beatles who are coming for a visit and are apparently quite the big to-do among the younger set. 

They also could have titled this One Wedding and a Funeral, as A New Era opens with the wedding of the sometimes annoyingly righteous but good-hearted Irish former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton) and ends with a tearful goodbye to ... no, no, no, I'm not telling you, and don't be so sure you've got it figured out, because you never know who might feel the cold grip of the grim reaper in this series. (Just ask Matthew Crawley or Lady Sybil. Oh, that's right, you can't - because they're DEAD.) 

After we see our favorite downstairs staffers dressed in their Sunday best for the Tom/Lucy nuptials, it's time for Fellowes to come up with a couple of his trademark, out-of-the-blue plot points that will brush the dust from Downton and lead to all sorts of Big Reveals and Surprising Hijinks, and don't forget the Cutting Barbs that will be hurled over drinks and dinner. We're in the year 1929, and as usual, there's concern over the finances at Downton, with Lady Mary (now firmly in charge of the household) informing her father the roof is leaking everywhere and will collapse if they don't do something about it. 

That's when British Lion Films comes calling with a substantial cash proposal in exchange for permission to shoot its latest high-profile silent film in the manor. Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is appalled at the notion of "Kinema People" taking over the house, but Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) accepts the offer, welcoming the dashing director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) and silver screen stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), as well as an entire production crew, much to the excitement of Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Daisy (Sophie McShera) and the rest of the downstairs gang. 

Guy strikes up a friendship and possibly more with the now-reformed former cad Barrow (Robert James-Collier), while Myrna is pretty much terrible to everyone - and things get even more complicated when the decision is made halfway through filming that this will be a talkie, can you believe it! This is gonna be a problem, because Myrna has a terribly grating voice. I mean, they might as well be Singin' in the Rain. 

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Lady Grantham herself (Maggie Smith, magnificent as always) announces she has inherited a substantial villa in the South of France, left to her by an old flame who has passed away. This provides an excuse for Lady Grantham to send Robert, his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Carson (Jim Carter), among others, to France to find out what's what. It also provides a rationale for director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman in Gold) to take the production to La Villa Rocabella to give us even more beautiful and lavish locale visuals.

With seemingly half of Britain's finest actors across multiple generations turning in universally fine performances in roles they've inhabited for lo these many years now - and we'd be remiss not to include Evanston's own Elizabeth McGovern as the calming presence that is Cora - Downton Abbey: A New Era is two hours of wonderful, fantasy escapist froth. As usual, the production design and costumes are museum-perfect, and even as things remain as complicated as ever with the Crawleys et al., the film itself is the definition of a simple pleasure.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Three stars

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery and Elizabeth McGovern

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated PG for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements

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