The much-anticipated next chapter to the highly successful Downton Abbey TV series and feature film is finally here.
Fans won’t be disappointed, despite its shortcomings.
The year is 1929. The mansion’s roof is leaking and the privileged but not entirely wealthy family needs money to have it repaired. Opportunity knocks when a British film company offers to shoot a silent film at the Abbey for a handsome fee.
The other big news is Violet Grantham’s announcement that she has inherited a villa in the south of France. The family is surprised and a little shocked at the news, wondering why a man they never heard of, whom she knew when she was young, was so generous to Violet in his will.
And so, two parallel story lines are set into motion. While the unwelcomed film crew invades Downton Abbey for a month to shoot a movie, family members and the family butler embark on a trip to their newly acquired property to meet the deceased man’s widow and son. They anticipate that the meeting will be awkward and uncomfortable at best since the widow and son are still living there.
There is the looming question about the villa and the nature of Violet’s brief, mysterious relationship with the wealthy Frenchman. Potentially damaging, long-kept secrets threaten to shake Downton Abbey to its very foundation.
Meantime, the dreaded film crew arrives, and production begins under the watchful eyes of Lady Mary. But before long, filming is abruptly halted due to concerns about the fact they are shooting a silent film at a time when audiences are clamoring for talking pictures.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This silent-to-sound movie industry dilemma was at the heart of Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
In it, the characters in the film hatch the idea of turning the silent film they are shooting into a “talkie.” Their biggest obstacle is that the obnoxious blonde female lead has an equally obnoxious voice. But then they stumble upon the idea of having someone else replace the star’s voice. Problem solved, at least initially.
The subplot is the centerpiece of Singin’ in the Rain. You could argue this is what made it such an enduring, entertaining classic over the years, well-known, well-loved.
It makes you wonder why the storyline is ripped off, hook, line and sinker, in Downton Abbey: A New Era, with only minor changes. Here, when production is halted, it is none other than Lady Mary who suggests they turn it into a talkie. When it is pointed out that their female lead’s voice is unacceptable, it is Lady Mary who makes the suggestion of replacing it. Eventually, she becomes the replacement voice, at the urging of the director who finds himself falling in love with Lady Mary.
The plagiarism of material from Singin’ in the Rain is a bit puzzling. You’d expect more from writer Julian Fellowes who had the royal family visiting Downton Abbey in the movie adaptation of the series. What might be construed or passed off as homage here comes off as a blatantly obvious rip-off.
To make matters worse, the handling of these scenes is laughably bad. Rather than have the silent film actors do their spoken lines in a soundproof booth (as correctly depicted in Singin’ in the Rain), Lady Mary is shown delivering her lines off-camera as the scenes are being shot, with the diva female merely moving her lips. That’s simply not how this was done in real life.
In another scene, the male lead is shown adding his spoken lines to silent scenes that were already shot, by standing in a room in front of a microphone while a movie project is clattering away just a few feet behind him. The mic would have picked up the projector noise. It’s why voice recording was done in a sound proof environment (as shown in Singin’ in the Rain).
Downton Abbey: The New Era’s reliance on recycled material is disappointing, as is the inaccuracy of what is depicted. This is a series known for strict attention to detail with regard to costumes, furniture and decorations. That didn’t happen here, as far as filmmaking technology goes.
In the end, the movie is part upscale vacation fantasy, part mystery and part film history nostalgia, though the details of the latter were clumsily handled.
That aside, the film delivers what its fans want to see and enjoy – an escapist glimpse into the private lives of an upper-class British family in a bygone era. It picks up where the previous film ended and answers the question: What happened next?
Downton Abbey is in theaters now.