Producers: Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge and Julian Fellowes Director: Simon Curtis Screenplay: Julian Fellowes Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Nathalie Baye, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Alex Macqueen, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï, Samantha Bond, Laura Carmichael, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Sue Johnston, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, David Robb, Charlie Watson and Fifi Hart Distributor: Focus Features
The word “new” may be part of the subtitle, but fans can rest easy: the second feature with which Julian Fellowes has continued his esteemed television series is as comfortable as an old shoe. Yes, the characters who inhabit Downton Abbey, both upstairs and downstairs, have to confront some innovative technology and the departure of a couple of significant members, but the tenor of easygoing period dramedy, beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral and played out decorously in plush surroundings, happily remains the same.
Fellowes’ script, set in the late 1920s, has two major plot threads. One concerns a magnificent villa on the French Riviera that’s been bequeathed to the Dowager Countess Violet Grantham (Maggie Smith) by the Marquis de Montmiral, with whom she’d spent a week shortly before marrying sixty years earlier. Her fragile health won’t allow her to travel to the continent to visit the place, but a family contingent headed by her son Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) goes there in her stead, only to find the marquis’ widow (Nathalie Baye) adamantly opposed to turning over the property but her son (Jonathan Zaccaï) insistent on complying with his late father’s wishes.
The reason for the new marquis’ attitude soon becomes clear: he believes that Crawley is in fact his half-brother. That sends the earl into a tizzy over his paternity, making for an interesting quasi-sitcom trip for all, though darkened by a touch of concern over Cora’s health problems. The broadest farce is centered on the presence of Crawley’s retired but ever-ready-to-jump-back-in butler Carson (Jim Carter), whose insistence on the superiority of all things British makes for a fish-out-of-water subplot.
The second major thread, set back at Downton, revolves around the earl’s pragmatically-minded daughter Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), whom he’s put in charge of the management of the estate. She’s decided to accept an offer from a film studio to shoot a movie on the grounds to provide funds for much-needed renovations to the place. That brings big-screen icons Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) and Guy Dexter (Dominic West) onto the scene, which sends the staff into star-struck delirium. For Mary, however, it’s director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) who makes the greatest impression: he’s attracted to her, and it’s up in the air whether the fastidious lady will succumb to his attention in the absence of her husband, who’s off racing cars.
But Mary and Barber develop a professional link as well. In a subplot borrowed from “Singin’ in the Rain,” Barber’s movie is halted by the sudden popularity of talkies, and Mary’s voice has to be substituted for Myrna’s unsuitable one on what becomes the film’s soundtrack in order to save the project. Meanwhile heartthrob Dexter shows a more than passing interest in Downton’s current butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier), whose love life has taken a sad turn. A call for somebody to punch up the script also has an effect on the fortunes of dithery, bookish Moseley (Kevin Doyle).
The above merely notes a few of the familiar characters who populate Downton; but fans can rest assured that the other faces they want to see again are present as well, though they have less to do. Only Matthew Goode, who plays Mary’s husband Henry, is AWOL, for obvious reasons.
Everyone involved, returnees as well as newcomers, do what’s expected of them admirably, and are provided with moments to shine, not least in the finale where the downstairs regulars get to be in the cash-strapped movie, just as they served the royals last time around. But as usual the guaranteed scene-stealers are Carter and Smith. Fellowes supplies the former with plenty of opportunities for crankily amusing arrogance, and the latter with her customary quota of waspish comments, though the character has certainly mellowed over the years. If this is the final installment of “Downton Abbey,” it represents in particular a worthy salute to an incomparable actress who’s created an indelible figure of haughty grace.
The behind-the-camera crew don’t disappoint, either. Simon Curtis, a newcomer to the series, upholds the standards of his predecessors in the director’s chair, and cinematographer Andrew Dunn, also in her first “Downton” outing, captures the ambience of the locations, and of Donal Woods’s production design, as well as the luster of the costumes by Anna Robbins and Maja Meschede, in glowing visuals. Adam Recht’s editing is stately without becoming static, while series veteran John Lunn contributes a predictably apropos score.
“Downton” devotees will not be disappointed in this lush, cannily constructed revisiting of the beloved aristocratic estate—except by the suspicion that it may be the last.