DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA
Downton Abbey is a juicy page-turner read while snuggled beneath a weighted blanket. It's a candlelit bubble bath enjoyed with a chilled class of Chardonnay. It's a cozy evening in front of the fire followed by a glass of warm milk – no matter that the beverage tends to make certain people puke. In short, for those who love it, this particular brand of British-royalty porn is, more than a decade into its popularity, the very definition of soul-quenching, only slightly sinful comfort food. And the experience of director Simon Curtis' Downton Abbey: A New Era is nothing if not exceedingly comfortable, even if there's little that's remotely New about it.
I presume I don't have to get into the 10 years' worth of characters and incidents that led to this sequel to the 2019 feature film based on the long-running BBC soap opera, do I? Because I don't have all day, and neither do you, and it would take at least a full day to fully recount everyone and everything involving the Crawleys – that insanely privileged clan of early-20th-century laze-abouts – and their unwaveringly devoted staffers. Playing catch-up with someone who had never before seen a Downton Abbey episode would be like trying to explain the Marvel Cinematic Universe to someone who'd never read a comic book, or offering a New Testament synopsis to someone who didn't know who Jesus was.
For those in the know, however, let me say that A New Era will undoubtedly deliver just about everything you want from it – unless, of course, what you want is filmmaking excitement, or emotional complexity, or even one storyline that might have conceivably shocked your grandmother. (It now feels unfathomable that the show's first season/series, back in 2010, found Lady Mary secretly dispensing with the corpse of a Turkish diplomat who died while they were having sex.) I caught the film among a well-populated, almost-entirely-senior crowd on Friday afternoon, and although the patrons at my screening didn't applaud the finale the way they did in '19, there was no mistaking their collective enthusiasm. There were loads of chuckles and a few genuine cackles; a couple of plot twists received un-ironic gasps; noses, during the last 15 minutes, were discreetly blown. Even when silently bemoaning the presentation, I was in Heaven: You can't help but be made happy by the sounds of so many others being audibly happy, even in their plot-induced misery. I didn't find Maggie Smith's bon mots here particularly funny, and there was certainly nothing to compare with her panicked horror, back in the day, upon sitting in a swivel chair. But the joy of the Dame's Downton fans was utterly infectious. They laughed, and then I laughed.
So regarding A New Era, what do you need to know beyond knowing that the devoted will have a good time? Well, there are two major plot threads, one of them decidedly more entertaining than anything that happened in the 2019 movie (which, for the record, I also enjoyed). The less-interesting of the pair concerns the Dowager Countess' unexpected procurement of a French villa, a scenario that winds up involving a mysterious affair from Violet's past, the identity of Robert Crawley's birth father, a health scare for Robert's wife Cora, a contested will, and Carson's abject refusal to wear anything appropriate for summertime in the south of France. All told, it's a decent-enough Downton detour, and it does give us plenty of gorgeous French vistas courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Plus, you know, the sight of Jim Carter's Carson practically collapsing with heat exhaustion … and this after the poor guy ran off to vomit during the boat ride to France. Good times!
For even better times, though, I'll direct you to A New Era's other key narrative, in which a British movie crew invades Downton for a month to film a silent melodrama starring a dashing charmer with a mustache and a Cockney starlet whose adoring public has never heard her shrill speaking voice. This plotline, folks, is awesome, and I can barely count the reasons why. For starters, in the role of the feature's director, it gives us Hugh Dancy, which is always a good thing, and allows him a playful romantic flirtation with Lady Mary, which is a great thing, because it shakes Michelle Dockery out of her traditional, weirdly acclaimed blend of sullenness and peevishness in the role. (Fear not, Downton obsessives: Mary is still married, more or less happily, to Matthew Goode's conveniently unseen Henry Talbot, so her relationship with Dancy's director remains platonic.)
Yet terrifically satisfying diversions keep pouring forth from this “Hollywood”-comes-to-Downton conceit. The downstairs staff goes gaga for the starlet until they realize she's even less cultured, and far less friendly, than they are. Barrow develops a teasingly hot acquaintance with film star Guy Dexter. (I'm probably not alone in wishing that Robert-James Collier's head butler were still the capital-A Asshole he was in the series' early days, but it's admittedly sweet to see the man borderline-happy, especially when the capitalized Guy he's happy with is played by Dominic West.) Although I initially wished there was more comic charge out of Laura Haddock's leading lady Myrna Dagleish proving unable to make it in talkies – hoping for something akin to Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain – the contrivance that resulted in Lady Mary looping the woman's on-screen dialogue proved unexpectedly poignant. And it took all my will not to applaud screenwriter Julian Fellowes' screenwriting inspiration that found Elsie, Anna, Daisy, Molesley, and the other servants dressed to the nines as movie extras and, for the first time in their lives, sitting – and being served – at the Downton manor's dining-room table. That's not a case of giving fans what they want. That's giving fans what they didn't even know they wanted.
If I were feeling particularly grouchy, I could easily come up with a few paragraphs of complaint: about the deadening repetition of the script's question/declarative-sentence/comeback structure; about the dead air that tends to linger for a few beats too many at the ends of scenes; about the movies' continued refusal to give series heartbreakers Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt anything of substance to do. But Downton Abbey: A New Era is a work that, at least for me, obliterates grouchiness. I adored this thing. I loved being reunited with Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Kevin Doyle, Phyllis Logan, and all the rest. I cherished the badinage between Smith and Penelope Wilton, whose characters may not be sparring like in the good ol' days, but whose more recent detente delivers its own kind of wonderfulness. I grinned at the opening wedding and welled up at the climactic funeral, and had time in between to delight in Imelda Staunton's quick wit and Allen Leech's bathing costume and the sight of Molesley getting down on one knee. It may not be new, but Downton Abbey: A New Era is about as fresh as old-hat gets.
Between 2015 and 2018, a quartet of genre filmmakers – Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers, and Alex Garland – delivered their debut features and immediately scored “Get Out of Jail Free” cards from me for whatever they wanted to do over the next 10 years. In reverse-chronological order, Aster made 2018's riveting fright flick Hereditary, which enticed viewers to 2019's more problematic but still astounding Midsommar. Peele, of course, won an Oscar for 2017's Get Out, a horror-comedy masterpiece that enabled the funding for 2019's Us, a similarly problematic – but altogether extraordinary – sophomore outing. Eggers, as a friend and I recently agreed, may be on his dispiriting way to Aronofsky-doing-Noah territory, but his 2016 sensation The Witch led to 2019's intriguingly nutty The Lighthouse and last month's hugely enjoyable man-cave dynamo The Northman. And Garland? He followed 2015's exemplary, Oscar-winning Ex Machina with 2018's sketchy and unsatisfying Annihilation, and has now followed that with the even more sketchy, equally unsatisfying Men. I remain on-board with all things Garland, but if this trend continues on its iffy path, we're gonna have issues come 2026.
While all of the aforementioned talents routinely employ their screen images as metaphors, you know a writer/director is in creative trouble when the images appear to be nothing but metaphors – such as the sight of Jessie Buckley munching on an Eden-ic apple in the first minutes of Men. Following the death, by either accident or suicide, of her emotionally abusive husband James (Papaa Essiedu), Buckley's Harper has rented out a remote estate in a rural English town, hoping for some tranquility while she deals with her grief, which is really more akin to relief. But not long after Harper takes a juicy bite out of that apple, the property's hospitable yet resolutely odd caretaker “good-naturedly” chides her for tasting of that forbidden fruit, and things quickly go downhill from there. Harper is seemingly pursued by a naked man who follows her through a tunnel and tries to forcibly gain entrance into her house. Her explanation of events is undermined by a town constable. She's called a “stupid bitch” by an adolescent ne'er-do-well. She receives horribly sexist and abhorrent advice from a local vicar. She's dismissed by the bartender and patrons at a neighboring pub. And Harper seems wholly unaware – though we in the audience certainly aren't – that all of these rotten-to-the-core men are played by the same actor.
In his defense, Rory Kinnear is phenomenal in Garland's movie. All of his characters feel individually defined and emotionally present and forceful in their distinctiveness, and while the weird-ass, deep-fake CGI doesn't make the guy remotely believable as a teen, that's hardly Kinnear's fault. And in her defense, Buckley, as she generally does, proves remarkable, empathetically blending exhaustion, grief, and terror with unimpeachable strength of character. But Buckey's performance power also comes with a strange, disorienting downside here, because it wasn't long into the film before I started asking, “Hey … why doesn't Harper notice that all these guys look exactly alike?” While Kinnear's multiple roles work on a symbolic level, they don't work at all on a literal one, which is the level Men is most assuredly aiming for. (Even the final minutes – the ones in which you could conceivably tell yourself “It was all a dream” – are presented as though the things we saw happen actually did happen.) And while Harper's inability to notice the sameness of these wretched men is again metaphorical, culminating in an “Oh-h-h-h... I get it” realization following many minutes of gruesomely detailed CGI effects, the realization itself seems hardly worth the bother. Men, as Men tells us, are shit. They've always been shit. And they'll continue to be shit 'til the end of time.
As horror-flick concepts go, this isn't a bad one. But in this ham-fisted Garland release, it's certainly an un-illuminating one, and it depressed me that what we eventually got from the writer/director's latest – despite the impressive grossness at the end – was so less intriguing than the 70-or-so minutes that preceded the gory finale. Beyond the superb central performances, there was the astonishing cinematography by Rob Hardy, with its green and orange hues practically hurting your eyes from the aching voluptuousness. There were the beautifully controlled bits of nerve-jangling suspense co-crafted by editor Jake Roberts. There were the lovely, humane FaceTime conversations between Harper and her faraway sister Riley (Gayle Rankin) – a device that reminded us, not without appreciation, of the difficulties of filming during a global pandemic. And there was the movie's absolute coup de grâs: Harper sending echo-chamber vocal calls into that tunnel and making ravishing harmonies out of the sounds. That bit has been employed for the Men trailers, yet it's grander and more gloriously fulfilling in the movie itself, and even though the scene ends in a moment of significant unease, I was at least inspired, in Alex Garland's new movie, to smile for two minutes straight. Too bad I didn't smile much at the other 98.