All good things must come to an end. As Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham might tartly remark, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is as faded as old chintz in a sunny parlor. Perhaps the current movie version, following a 2019 film of a royal visit to the Abbey, and six seasons on PBS, has the oddest weakness of all for a sequel to a beloved costume drama: The majority of characters are fundamentally happy. Is that the death knell of this upstairs-downstairs soap?
Set in 1928, the film presents the elite Crawley clan still chasing money to fix the leaky manor house as the handsome former chauffeur and son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), weds an heiress with a soiled pedigree, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), in the local church. Rice is tossed. Prosperity and fertility will come, and the former Irish firebrand has ascended to country squire — for those who consider that a rise.
The narrative then splits between two plots, neither with much suspense or surprise but borne forth nobly by the characters, actors, and costumes fans have grown to love. In the first, Lady Mary (drop-dead dresser Michelle Dockery) has continued to follow in the Dowager’s footsteps to become the heir apparent and is now running the estate.
After some half-hearted resistance from Mary’s lame-duck father, the 7th Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), she agrees to rent Downton as a movie location to crass Hollywood movie producers for the dosh. Enter new blood Hugh Dancy as fluffy-haired silent-film director Jack Barber, accompanied by his film stars Dominic West, as a kind of knock-off Cary Grant, and the Cockney-accented Laura Haddock. The historical crisis exploited here is the advent of the talkies, and the possibility that neither the filmmakers nor the actors will be able to make the leap into that new world. This chimes the theme that has forever been central to Downton: Times change, and not all individuals have the capacity to change with them.
In the parallel story, the iron-willed Dowager, now considerably softened, has set the entire family, upstairs and down, atwitter. She has unexpectedly inherited a Riviera villa from a youthful French admirer — much to the displeasure of his widow (the famed French actress Nathalie Baye). The Englishwoman has generously decided to bequeath the villa to Sybbie (Fifi Hart), her great-great granddaughter named after Lady Sybil, Branson’s first wife who died too, too young in an early television plot twist that set audiences sobbing.
There’s no weeping here. A small contingent of the Crawley household travels to check out the new real estate. While the French widow sulks at the British invasion, and questions of Violet’s youthful indiscretions resurface (remember that hot-blooded Russian suitor, Prince Igor Kuragin?), there are some rather flatfooted French-English jokes. The retired butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) has joined the party and, despite the southern heat, insists on wearing his country tweeds and wools until he’s red-faced on the verge of heat stroke, never shedding his disregard for the locals. The question of Lord Grantham’s paternity floats up: Could he be, eek, half French? He, selfishly, obsesses about his pedigree while his lovely American wife and cash infusion (Elizabeth McGovern) stands pale and paler at his side, the equivalent of someone coughing in act one, spitting blood in a handkerchief in act two, and in act three . . . Lord Grantham notices nothing.
Life downstairs is actually pretty good, in an end-of-a-Jane-Austen-novel manner. Mr. Carson and the former Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) fuss like the old married couple they’ve become. Mr. and Mrs. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Joanna Froggatt) are now parents. Spunky kitchen assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera) has found a sensible chap (Michael Fox) and matured nicely. And, once a nasty trouble-maker, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) continues looking for love in a time when same-sex relationships were illegal, and may have met his match.
As written by creator Julian Fellowes, and mild-manneredly directed by McGovern’s real-life husband, Simon Curtis, the film revels in sweeping views of Downton and the Riviera villa accompanied by equally-sweeping music from composer John Lunn. In the end, forgiveness and acceptance rule the day as the Dowager Countess takes her final victory lap, and whatever old scores have been unsettled are tied up with silk ribbon. Missing are the teeth, and the class conflict, and Smith’s unmatchable flair for delivering snark.
Perhaps Fellowes, after winning a 2002 screenwriting Oscar for the related “Gosford Park,” creating “Downton Abbey,” and taking the upstairs-downstairs show on the road for its American cousin, HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” has plowed this field too long.
The series’ many diehard fans will still, and should, flock to their beloved Downton and its denizens. But, as a standalone film, the fatigued period drama goes in one era and out the other with little to add.
DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA
★★½ Directed by Simon Curtis. Written by Julian Fellowes. Starring Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Allen Leech, Dominic West, Hugh Dancy. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 125 minutes. PG (no violence or bad language, alcohol is served but no one appears drunk or disorderly, mild kissing).