The Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, (Maggie Smith) is informed that a previous lover has passed away and left her a villa in France. Meanwhile, a film production led by stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) arrives at Downton Abbey for a shoot, and brings Hollywood glamour to the village...
According to Artistotle, the six elements of drama are plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song. 'Downton Abbey: A New Era' has all of these, but at absolutely no point in this two-hour journey through the wet dreams of the English upper class does any of it actually become dramatic. There isn't one single, defining moment in this where anything happens that could be described as being suspenseful, exciting, or even compelling. You're looking at a collection of actors in beautiful clothes, walking around lush scenery, doing their best with completely uneventful material and making a fist of it.
People waltz into a scene, explain why they're there, where they're going, why they're going there, and then toddle off. With such a stacked cast of characters - the entire cast of the show, plus the additions of Hugh Dancy, Dominic West, Laura Haddock, and French actors Nathalie Baye and Jonathan Zaccaï - there's too much of everything happening all at once, never allowing itself a chance to stop and breathe. Why? Because if anyone did, they'd realise that 'Downton Abbey: A New Era' is a movie about everything working out for rich English people.
Maggie Smith's character gets left a house in the will of some French guy she hooked up with two centuries ago. There's a film crew in the big house and Dominic West is playing a closeted gay actor who's trying to convince the head butler to come live with him in Hollywood, which he eventually does because when is anything not going to work out for anyone here? Christ, it's set in the thirties and there isn't one mention of the fall of democracy in Germany and the rise of Nazism. Seeing as how there's a glut of World War II movies being churned out by English filmmakers of late, you'd have thought this might have been something they could explore instead? Is it because a good chunk of the English aristocracy at that time was more amenable to fascism than anyone wants to admit?
Grudgingly getting back to 'Downton Abbey: A New Era', what's particularly ironic is that there really is nothing new about any of it. It's just more of the same. The film production storyline, for example, is a straight copy of 'Singin' In The Rain', with Laura Haddock's character taking the role of Lina Lamont. The whole talkies replacing silent movies schtick has been covered in 'The Artist', 'Nickolodeon', 'Sunset Boulevard' and plenty more besides. The French villa storyline has been done in about a dozen plays and movies as well, so there's nothing terribly exciting there either.
The truth is that it's all so good-natured and sickly sweet, it's really difficult to criticise any of it. It's not trying for something and failing at it. Rather, it knows exactly what it is and achieves it in totality. Obviously, 'Downton Abbey' as a concept appeals to audiences who simply want a comforting, relaxing time without anything challenging them or upsetting them. This will either put you to sleep or be a pleasant two hours. Either way, it's too unassuming and insipid to actively hate it.
Enjoy it or don't.