A couple of months ago, my hubby and I had started bingeing the Downton Abbey series all the way from the beginning. I had watched the first season when it first came out in 2010 but didn’t keep up with it. The series has become a global phenomenon, though not even its creator Julian Fellowes could predict that 12 years later, people still want to see what the Crawley family are up to.
The aristocratic family saga set in a fictional Yorkshire country estate began in 1912. In this movie, the story is set in the late 20s, 1928 to be exact. It’s bookended by a happy and sad moment, with everything in between. It opens with a grand wedding and it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say whose as it was a major plot in the first film. After being heartbroken over the loss of his wife Sibyl, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has found a new love in Lucy Smitth (Tuppence Middleton).
It’s quite well known how Maggie Smith wants to be done playing everyone’s fave character, the delightfully acerbic Violet, aka the Dowager Countess. Well, I’m glad she’s still in this one as remains the MVP ’til the end. Violet manages to inject a sense of mystery when she tells everyone she inherits a villa in the South of France, gifted to her by someone she was involved with in late 1800. The mysterious gentleman’s widow (Nathalie Baye) isn’t too happy about the arrangement while his son wants to abide by his wishes. So Robert (Hugh Bonneville, looking unnaturally tanned ), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Edith (Laura Carmichael) & her husband (Harry Hadden-Paton) are sent to the villa to sort things out, including their ever so loyal former butler Carson (Jim Carter) who comes out of his retirement to join them.
Now, keeping all the drama within the family is fine, I mean they managed to do just that for six seasons in the series. That said, I’m glad Fellowes brings in something of a novelty in the sequel that shakes things up a bit. Hollywood always loves making movies about themselves, but in this case, the film-within-a-film plot is actually a good setup for some amusing moments. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who’s now the new Crawley matriarch gets an offer she can’t refuse from the British Lion film company who wants to shoot a film at Downton. Robert may snobbishly look down on the working class lot which includes ‘the cinema people’ as he calls it, but they can offer what these job-less aristocrats desperately need. Fans of the series know the Crawleys. are always strapped for cash to maintain their lavish lifestyle, so Mary wisely accepts such a lucrative opportunity.
So while most of the Crawleys are away in the Riviera, Mary and the servants have their own unexpected adventure without leaving the estate. While most of the primary Downton cast is intact (except for Matthew Goode who apparently had a scheduling conflict), new actors fill up the film cast/crew roles. Hugh Dancy plays the silent film director who fancies Lady Mary, while Dominic West and Laura Haddock play the two leads Guy and Myrna who don’t exactly get along.
Director Simon Curtis tries to balance the drama in and out of Downton, which can be quite challenging. While the first movie crammed way too many plots in a 2-hour timeframe, I think the sequel did a better job paring things down, though there is still a lot to keep up with here.
I have to say I was more amused by the moviemaking shenanigans which offer eyebrow-raising and hilarious moments. The fiasco involving the demise of silent movies thanks to the emergence of ‘talkies’ is an interesting historical moment, but the way it’s inserted into the plot doesn’t quite work on the realism front. Of course, it’s all designed to involve members of the aristocratic family doing things they aren’t comfortable with. There is an absolutely absurd scene between the glamorous Myrna with the glaring Cockney accent and Daisy (Sophie McShera) the kitchen maid.
The subplot about Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) being a huge movie buff is pretty cute. He gets to utter the memorable line “Hollywood is the ultimate dream factory … and I need dreams as much as the next man,” as the film crews arrive at Downton. His character arc is an awww-inducing, definitely more uplifting than Branson’s action-paced, assassination-attempt-thwarting in the first movie. As for the one LGBTQ character Thomas (Robert James-Collier), the series has explored what it means to be gay in 1920s Britain. Well, in keeping with the happier theme, this movie hints that a blissful life while staying true to himself just might be within reach.
As a fan of period dramas, I enjoy the meticulous production design and lavish costumes. Given the Riviera location, the costume designers get a bit more to work with the French fashion. The lavish pool party scene with all the gorgeous frocks is really a feast for the eyes while John Lunn’s lush score is pure ear candy to me.
I equate watching Downton Abbey to having a relaxing afternoon tea with friends… it’s a comforting endeavor while you let yourself be buoyed by mild, genteel entertainment Fellowes has mastered to perfection. There is an occasional ‘shocking’ moment that’s never so ghastly that you’d spit out your tea. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, in fact, I appreciate its calming sensation that serves as a palate cleanser after I watch a high-stake violent action thriller. While some might regard Downton as a decrepit relic, one can’t deny the power of a feel-good movie that manages to remain optimistic even at a funeral. You know what, as the pandemic hasn’t quite left us yet, I’d say it’s a welcome respite.
Have you seen Downton Abbey sequel? Let me know what you think!