‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ Bids Farewell to Our Favorite Aristocrat

After a world war, the untimely deaths of family members and more than their share of scandals, the members of the Crawley family return to the screen to find themselves living in mostly better times. “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” the second film based on the “Downton Abbey” series, sees the aristocratic family, and those who work for them, embark on new chapters in life as the roaring ‘20s come to a close.

“A New Era” is bookended by two major events in the lives of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the widower of the youngest Crawley daughter, Sybil, and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of Crawley cousin Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). The first one is their wedding, a joyous day that brings the members and their servants in their best clothes. The wins keep coming, as matriarch Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) learns that she has been left a villa in the south of France by the late Marquis de Montmirail, a man she had a fleeting romance with over 50 years ago. She tells her bemused family that she plans to leave the villa to Tom and Sybil’s daughter, Sybbie, as all her other grandchildren will be well provided for. In another twist that shocks Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), he and his family receive an invite from the new marquis (Jonathan Zaccaï) to visit the villa despite the fact that his mother (Nathalie Baye) plans to contest her husband’s will. The family sets off, with the exception of eldest daughter Mary (MIchelle Dockery) and Violet.

Meanwhile, in a subplot that mirrors Downton life, a film director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), asks to shoot his latest feature at Downton Abbey. Mary, who has always been one to welcome the modern world, hosts Jack and his crew, including charming lead actor Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and rude diva actress Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). Just as was the case in the series, a lot of humor is milked out of the old guard resisting to change. Mary and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) find an excuse to send Mrs. Hughes’ disapproving husband, retired butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to France, along with Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy). Meanwhile, Mary’s maid, Anna (Joanna Froggatt), and starstruck assistant cook, Daisy (Sophie McShera), find themselves tasked with looking after the temperamental Myrna, who becomes more sour after the production is switched from being a silent film to a talkie. Because of her downscale accent, she cannot voice her regal character, but a creative solution is found to keep the production from shutting down.

In a flip from what we are used to seeing in the series, second sister Edith (Laura Carmicheal) is now “happily” in love, as her marriage with Bertie Pelham, Marquess of Hexham (Harry Hadden-Paton), continues to be a success. Mary, meanwhile, is experiencing a rough patch in her marriage to Henry Talbot, who is away on business, but it gives Mary an excuse to flirt with Jack. This is one of the few subplots with some unpredictability, as fans might be convinced that Mary, who has mostly abided by the rules that come with being woman in her position (except for a few memorable detours), could throw away everything she has built for a man who is new and exciting.

The second curveball is the revelation that Violet’s interlude with the marquis was dangerously close to the birth of Robert. About nine months close, to be exact. Understandably, Robert is shocked. Once they are back home, cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) makes some delicate inquiries to Violet in a scene that reminds us that the relationship between Violent and Isobel, which started off adversarial, has become one of the most endearing relationships of “Downton Abbey.”

Mary and Edith’s relationship, once contentious, has also softened as the women have matured with age. Motherhood and their respective occupations –– Edith has returned to journalism while Mary, who has been co-managing Downton for years, finds herself taking on a major role in the production of the film –– have given them both the sense of purpose that they were missing in the early seasons.

Carmichael spoke about her on and off-screen relationship with Dockery during an interview with Entertainment Voice. “She’s just my best mate… We have a real laugh, and all of the times [Edith and Mary] were being awful to each other, that was our favorite stuff to film. In the shooting of this film, they still nudge each other, but now there’s a slight warmth between them. It feels very natural and very easy to slip into that with Michelle.”

“New Era” culminates in a final goodbye to Violet, who announced her terminal illness at the end of the last film. Her loyal maid Denker (Sue Johnston), who was absent in the previous film, returns to her side, and Johnston gives an emotional performance as the end nears. The Dowager’s send-off is an impactful sequence that brings that whole world of “Downton” together, just like the wedding in the beginning, but the tone is drastically different. It hits the viewer that if the “Downton” franchise continues, it will never be the same without Maggie Smith.

Carmichael discussed filming that affecting farewell. “Knowing it was coming really got us into that headspace. I do think we had to hold back, if anything, because it was really emotional. It did feel like a moment of acknowledging how wonderful it’s been to work with Maggie. It’s really one of the greatest privileges of my life to be able to work with her and call her a friend. That scene sort of just played itself. In terms of everyone else in the room, we were just watching Maggie and being moved by what she was doing.”

A lighter subplot deals with the return of another beloved minor character who was absent from the first film, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), a tenant of Lord Grantham and Daisy’s father-in-law from her brief marriage to war hero and footman William. Daisy, who is now married to footman Andy (Michael C. Fox), is now living on Mr. Mason’s farm, and his sharing his living space with the young couple after years of being alone makes for some awkwardness. Finally, “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes follows through with the romance for head cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), that was promised at then end of the series, as Daisy works to set her and Mr. Mason up.

Beyond the departure of Maggie Smith, “A New Era” is the ultimate fan service. Fellowes ties up loose ends and give characters their happy endings, which will have some wondering if this might be the final chapter of “Downton Abbey.” Former servant and current teacher Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) picks up another career as a writer and finally makes a decision regarding his drawn-out courtship with Miss Baxter. Meanwhile, butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier), another former antagonist, forms a touching connection with movie star, Guy. Cora and Robert tearfully confirm their devotion to each other after a health scare. Finally, after a wedding and a death, “A New Era” concludes on the most hopeful note possible, the welcoming of a tiny new member of the family. The film is indeed a delight for true fans who have been following these characters for over a decade, but the relatively low stakes, at least compared to the series, and the large cast make it less exciting for newcomers. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era” releases May 20 in theaters nationwide.