At the end of the last Downton Abbey film, the poor Dowager Countess of Grantham had graciously acknowledged a serious unnamed malady, and there was a solemn overhead crane shot of the stately home against a cosmic starlit sky before the closing credits. It seemed to all of us that this franchise was surely finished. But oh no. Downton is back. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes’s creation has lurched defiantly up from its deathbed for another Charleston around the sick-room and I have to admit – like someone with an empty tube of Pringles in their hand that was full 10 minutes ago – that I did find this film entertaining; more outrageously silly and hammy and artlessly snobby than ever, with some Acorn Antiques-style revelations of paternity shenanigans and gorgeous tailoring for the gentlemen.

It is of course several leagues below Fellowes’s original country-house movie – Gosford Park from 2001, directed by Robert Altman – and some plot ideas about the glamorous world of Hollywood movies have in fact been cheekily recycled from that film. And there is another borrowing (cheekier still) from Singin’ in the Rain. All this is something that will (understandably) annoy many, and this film may well try the patience of non-fans. But there is something diverting about the deadly serious melodrama and bizarre glassy-eyed pathos that Downton 2 is serving up. And as ever, there is something intriguing about the way Maggie Smith, when she has to deliver emotional lines – as she occasionally does – sounds less and less posh.

The date is around 1928 or possibly 1929, apparently before the Wall Street crash. (But wait: Smith’s character was supposed to be quite old at the beginning of the TV show, which kicked off in 1912!) Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) draws the attention of her crotchety papa, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), to the fact that the house’s roof is leaking – so they need cash. There is nothing for it but to accept the offer of money from the ghastly people from what Lord Grantham calls the “kinema”: a film production company that wants to use the house as a location for a new film. The roguishly handsome star Guy Dexter (Dominic West) charms one and all, and appears to have a particular spark with the house’s footman-turned-butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier). Meanwhile, the below-stairs staff are gibbering with excitement about it all and the film’s sensitive and rather wet director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) has a tendresse for Lady Mary, who gets them out of a jam.

While this is going down, it emerges that the Dowager Countess has been left a villa in the south of France in the will of an ageing French aristocrat with whom she had a dalliance in the previous century. So this rather Mitfordian plot twist means some of the family have to journey to the sun-dappled Côte d’Azur to inspect this gorgeous property on the Countess’s behalf and be confronted by the nobleman’s affronted widow, played by Nathalie Baye. And what exactly did the Dowager Countess of Grantham have to do to get this house? Are we going to get some shockingly CGI-youthified scene of deshabille? Well, it leads to scenes of utter consternation on the part of Lord Grantham – although perhaps only a pedant would wonder why no one thought to find a photograph of the old Marquise.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Carmichael, Tuppence Middleton and Allen Leech in Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Carmichael, Tuppence Middleton and Allen Leech in Downton Abbey: A New Era. Photograph: Ben Blackall/Universal/PA

No matter. It is all cheerfully risible although heading for a note of seriousness to compare with what Wagner was aiming for with Siegfried’s Funeral March. I have to hope now that this really is it, and that if Mr Fellowes want to give us more Downton, he will confine it to a streaming TV show, with a new Grantham generation in the 1970s reduced to penury by exorbitant but highly justified rates of tax.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is released on 28 April in Australia, 29 April in the UK and 20 May in the US.



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