Review: ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era,’ starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West and Robert James-Collier

May 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Photo by Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

“Downton Abbey: A New Era”

Directed by Simon Curtis

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1928, in the United Kingdom and in France, the dramatic film “Downton Abbey: A New Era” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In order to pay for extensive mansion renovations, the wealthy Downton Abbey clan of England reluctantly allows a movie to be filmed at Downton Abbey, while matriarch Violet Crawley finds herself embroiled in a battle over inherited property, health issues, and questions over who really fathered her son Robert Crawley.

Culture Audience: Aside from appealing to “Downton Abbey” fans, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movies about 20th century upper-crust British people and their servants.

Hugh Dancy (second from left), Kevin Doyle (third from left), Alex Macqueen (second from right) and Michelle Dockery (far right) in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (Photo by Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is more comedic and bolder than its predecessor movie. It takes a less insular view of the world, from the central family’s perspective, thanks to encounters with the 1920s movie industry and a trip to the south of France. The wealthy British clan is impacted when a movie is made on the Downton Abbey estate (located in Yorkshire, England), while members of the Downton Abbey family go to the south of France and learn more about their ancestral history, which might be intertwined with a French aristocratic family.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” is a sequel to 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie (directed by Michael Engler), which was in turn a continuation of the British “Downton Abbey” TV series, which was on the air from 2010 to 2015. (In the United States, the award-winning “Downton Abbey” series began airing in 2011.) “Downton Abbey” creator/showrunner/writer Julian Fellowes, who is also the writer of the “Downton Abbey” movies, makes each part of the franchise seamless without making it confusing to viewers who are new to the franchise.

In other words: It’s not necessary to see the “Downton Abbey” TV series (which takes place from 1912 to 1926) and 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie (which takes place in 1927) before seeing “Downton Abbey: A New Era” (which takes place in 1928), although it is very helpful to see all things “Downton Abbey” before watching this movie sequel. As a bonus, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” has an introduction by Kevin Doyle, who plays valet Joseph Molesley, better known as Mr. Molesley. In this introduction, he catches viewers up to speed by providing a summary of what happened in the 2019 “Downton Abbey” movie. A “Downtown Abbey” TV series recap, although not part of “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” is available online and narrated by cast members Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan, who portray Downton Abbey servants Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes.

Directed by Simon Curtis, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” continues with the central family’s preoccupations with class status, royal titles, property ownership and who is (or who should be) the rightful heirs of various inheritances. The “Downton Abbey” franchise, just like much of Fellowes’ work, explores the “upstairs/downstairs” cultures, with the “upstairs” people being the wealthy employers and the “downstairs” people being the employers’ servants. What makes “Downton Abbey: A New Era” stand out from previous “Downton Abbey” storylines is that the “upstairs” and “downstairs” people of Downton Abbey, who usually only deal with British aristocrats, interact with two very different types of cultures: showbiz people and French aristocrats.

Because there are so many characters in the “Downton Abbey” franchise, here’s a handy guide of who’s who in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” and how their relationships affect each other:

The “Upstairs” People

  • Violet Crawley (played by Maggie Smith), also known as Violet Grantham (her maiden name) or Dowager Countess of Grantham. Violet is the widowed family matriarch. She is feisty, sarcastic and strong-willed when it comes to deciding the family’s power structure. Violet is the mother of two living children: son Robert and daughter Rosamund. Sir Marmaduke Painswick, one of Violet’s three children, is deceased and was never seen in the series.
  • Robert Crawley (played by Hugh Bonneville), 7th Earl of Grantham. Robert is Violet’s only living son. He is generally friendly but also very opinionated on how family matters should be handled.
  • Lady Rosamund Painswick (played by Samantha Bond), Violet’s other living child. Lady Rosamund usually defers to her mother and her brother, when it comes to major decisions for the family.
  • Cora Crawley (played by Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess of Grantham. She is Robert’s kind, patient and dutiful wife. Robert and Cora are the parents of three daughters, one of whom is deceased.
  • Lady Mary Josephine Talbot (played by Michelle Dockery), previously known as Mary Crawley. Fair-minded and even-tempered, she is the eldest of Robert and Cora’s three daughters. In the “Downton Abbey” movie, Violet put Mary in charge of all Downton Abbey management decisions, but Mary struggles with having confidence in deciding what is best for Downton Abbey and the family. Mary experienced tragedy with the 1921 death of her first husband Matthew Crawley (played by Dan Stevens), who was a distant cousin. Matthew died in a car accident shortly after Mary gave birth to their son George Crawley (played by twins Oliver Barker and Zac Barker), born in 1921. In 1925, Mary wed her second husband Henry Talbot (played by Matthew Goode), who is not seen in “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” Henry is dashing and charming but often inattentive to his family because he frequently travels to attend car racing matches around the world. Mary says of Henry: “He’s in love with cars, speed and adventure.” Mary and Henry have a daughter together named Caroline Talbot (played by twins Bibi Burr and Olive Burr), who was born in 1926.
  • Lady Edith Pelham (played by Laura Carmichael), previously known as Edith Crawley), Marchioness of Hexham. She is the middle daughter of Robert and Cora. Edith is happily married and has been mainly preoccupied with raising children, after previous issues with conceiving. She is a journalist who still wants to continue her dream of owning and managing her own magazine. In late 1922 or early 1923, Edith gave birth to her daughter Marigold (played by twins Eva Samms and Karina Samms), whose biological father was The Sketch magazine editor Michael Gregson (played by Charles Edwards), whom Edith met when she wrote for the magazine. Edith and Michael were never married because he could not divorce his mentally ill wife. Michael died in 1923, during the Beer Hall Putch in Germany.
  • Herbert “Bertie” Pelham (played by Harry Hadden-Paton), 7th Marquess of Hexham, an amiable real-estate agent/military man. He is Edith’s second husband and the stepfather of Marigold. Bertie and Edith, who were wed on New Year’s Eve 1925, have a biological son together named Peter, who was born in 1927 or 1928.
  • Tom Branson (played by Allen Leech), an Irishman who used to be the Downton Abbey chauffeur, but he became part of the family when he married Sybil Crawley (played by Jessica Brown Findlay), Robert and Cora’s youngest daughter, who died from childbirth complications in 1920. Tom and Sybil’s daughter, born in 1920, is named Sybil “Sybbie” Branson (played by Fifi Hart).
  • Lucy Branson (played by Tuppence Middleton), Tom’s second wife, whom he began courting in the first “Downton Abbey” movie. Lucy is a former maid and formerly secret illegitimate daughter of Maud Bagshaw, who is a wealthy distant relative of the Crawleys. Maud has made Lucy the heir to Maud’s entire fortune. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” opens with the wedding of Tom and Lucy.
  • Maud Bagshaw (played by Imelda Staunton) is a steely socialite who has had a longstanding feud with Violet, because Violet thinks Maud should have made Violet son’s Robert the heir to Maud’s fortune, since Maud has no sons of her own. This feud reached a temporary halt when Lucy and Tom got married, since this marriage puts the Crawleys in close proximity to Lucy’s inheritance, because Robert’s granddaughter Sybbie is now Lucy’s stepdaughter.
  • Isobel Merton (played by Penelope Wilton), the droll-talking mother of the late Matthew Crawley. Isobel frequently trades sardonic barbs with Violet.
  • Lord Merton (played by Douglas Reith), Isobel’s laid-back second husband. He is usually a bystander in the family drama.

The “Downstairs” People

  • Thomas Barrow (played by Robert James-Collier), the Downton Abbey butler. He is somewhat rigid and uptight but not afraid to stand up for himself if he feels that he is being disrespected. Thomas is also a semi-closeted gay man. Only a few trusted people at Downton Abbey know about his true sexuality.
  • Daisy Parker (played by Sophie McShera), a Downton Abbey kitchen maid. She has a fun-loving and energetic personality. Daisy suffered a tragedy when her first husband William Mason (Thomas Howes), a second footman for the Downton Abbey family, died from World War I combat wounds.
  • Andy Parker (played by Michael Fox), the Downton Abbey second footman. Daisy and Andy fell in love and got married circa 1928. Andy is prone to get jealous and insecure, but Daisy likes that Andy is willing to go to extremes for their love.
  • Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter), the on-again/off-again Downton Abbey butler. As the most experienced butler at Downton, he often sees himself as the unofficial leader of the staff, whether they want his advice or not.
  • Mrs. Hughes (played by Phyllis Logan), the Downtown Abbey head housekeeper, who is prim, proper, and frequently involved in keeping secrets to prevent Downton Abbey from being embroiled in scandals.
  • Mrs. Patmore (played by Lesley Nicol), the Downton Abbey chief cook. She has a no-nonsense attitude that keeps the other kitchen staff in check.
  • Mr. Bates (played by Brendan Coyle), the Downton Abbey valet. His arrogance sometimes alienates other members of the staff.
  • Anna Bates (played by Joanne Froggatt), wife of Mr. Bates and the maid to Lady Mary. She is generally well-liked but sometimes gets caught up in the Downton Abbey gossip.
  • Mr. Molesley, the aforementioned Downton Abbey valet who has a tendency to bumble and be socially awkward.
  • Phyllis Baxter (played by Raquel Cassidy), the lady’s maid for the Countess of Grantham. Phyllis and Mr. Molesley become each other’s love interest. “Downton Abbey: The Next Era” shows how far this romance goes.

The Newcomers

  • Jack Barber (played by Hugh Dancy), the director and producer of “The Gambler,” a drama film, set in 1875, about a seductive gambler who’s a con man and a heartbreaker.
  • Guy Dexter (played by Dominic West), the male titular star of “The Gambler.” Guy is charismatic, flirtatious, and might be secretly attracted to Barrow, the Downton Abbey butler.
  • Myrna Dalgleish (played by Laura Haddock), the female star of “The Gambler.” Myrna comes from a working-class background and has a thick Cockney accent. She is very conceited and rude to almost everyone.
  • Mr. Stubbins (played by Alex Macqueen), the sound engineer for “The Gambler.”
  • Montmirail (played by Jonathan Zaccaï), a French marquis from a wealthy family.
  • Madame de Montmirail (played by Nathalie Baye), Montmirail’s mistrusting mother.

It’s a lot of characters to take in for one movie, which is why viewers who know at least some basic “Downton Abbey” background will enjoy “Downton Abbey: A New Era” the most. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” also has two main storylines:

(1) British Lion Film Corp. Ltd. asks to film “The Gambler” at Downton Abbey for one month. Some members of the family think it would be crass and tacky to allow a movie to be made at their home, but Mary ultimately decides that the family could use the money to do extensive renovations at Downton Abbey, including the roof that has been leaking for years. After all, why use the family money for this refurbishing when it can be paid for by a movie studio?

“The Gambler” was originally going to be a silent film. However, the movie studio shuts down production of “The Gambler” because talking pictures are becoming popular. Mary comes up with the idea to make “The Gambler” a talking picture by dubbing in the audio with a separate recording.

However, Myrna’s speaking voice is considered too “low-class” and unacceptable for the role, and she says her lines of dialogue in a stiff and unnatural manner. A reluctant Mary is then recruited to be the speaking voice for Myrna’s character in “The Gambler.” Myrna predictably gets jealous. Most of the comedic scenes in “Downton Abbey: A New Era” revolve around the making of “The Gambler.”

(2) Violet finds out that she inherited a villa in the south of France from Montmirail’s marquis father, whom Violet spent just a few days with when she traveled to France as a young woman. This Montmirail widow is contesting this will and is threatening to take legal action against Violet. Robert, Cora, Edith, Bertie, Tom and Lucy all travel to France to meet the Montmirail widow and her son, to settle this matter, and to see the villa. Meanwhile, speculation abounds over why Violet got the inheritance. Was it because she and the marquis were secret lovers? Meanwhile, Violet is dealing with health issues that were mentioned in the first “Downton Abbey” movie.

“Downton Abbey: A New Era” keeps much of the snappy dialogue that’s characteristic of the “Downton Abbey” franchise, while the movie’s screenplay still maintains an air of intrigue and mystery of how the story is going to go. (Needless to say, the movie’s cinematography and production design are gorgeous.) And all of the cast members play their roles with considerable aplomb.

Violet, as usual, gets the best zingers. She’s one of the Crawley family members who is appalled that showbiz people have populated Downton Abbey to film “The Gambler.” Violet is particularly unimpressed with Myrna. Violet quips about Myrna: “She has all the charm of a verruca.” Violet also finds movies to be an uncultured form of entertainment. “I’d rather eat pebbles,” she says about watching movies.

If watching a film about stuffy British people and their servants isn’t something that you don’t want to spend two hours of your time doing, then anything to do with “Downton Abbey” is not for you. But if you want to see an intriguing and multilayered story about the dynamics between a complicated family, then “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is worth your time, especially if you know about who these characters are before watching the movie.

Focus Features will release “Downton Abbey: A New Era” in U.S. cinemas on May 20, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘School’s Out Forever,’ starring Oscar Kennedy, Liam Lau Fernandez, Alex Macqueen and Jasmine Blackborow

June 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oscar Kennedy, Alex Macqueen, Jasmine Blackborow and Liam Lau Fernandez in “School’s Out Forever” (Photo courtesy of Central City Media)

“School’s Out Forever”

Directed by Oliver Milburn

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the comedic horror film “School’s Out Forever” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a post-apocalyptic world, a rebellious 15-year-old boy, who was expelled from an elite school for boys, hides out at the school with fellow students and a few school administrators, who all try to prevent an invasion from a powerful government official whose murderous teenage daughter they are holding captive.

Culture Audience: “School’s Out Forever” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching an often-sluggishly paced, post-apocalyptic horror movie that thinks it’s funnier and smarter than it really is.

Freya Parks in “School’s Out Forever” (Photo courtesy of Central City Media)

Filled with plot holes and improbable action scenes, the comedic horror flick “School’s Out Forever” starts off with a fairly intriguing concept that it ends up ruining with formulaic shootouts and fights. It’s the type of movie where people pull out guns for an immediate attack or self-defense but instead just stand around talking for too long when their opponents could easily gun them down. It’s also a movie where the actors take inexplicably long pauses in between sentences. It makes you wonder if the humans in this post-apocalyptic world are the real zombies.

“School’s Out Forever” (written and directed by Oliver Milburn) is based on Scott K. Andrews’ 2012 novel of the same title. It’s part of a “School’s Out” trilogy of novels that many people describe as “Lord of the Flies” meets “The Hunger Games.” The “School’s Out Forever” movie is nowhere near the quality of any of the “Lord of the Flies” and “The Hunger Games” books and films. In fact, there are long stretches of the movie that look like dull, rejected scenes from a horror sitcom that no one wants to watch.

“School’s Out Forever” begins by showing main character Lee Keegan (played by Oscar Kennedy), a rebellious 15-year-old, playing a prank at the posh St. Mark’s School for Boys, where he is a student. The movie doesn’t name the city in England where the school is located, but the movie was actually filmed in London, Suffolk and Oxford. Lee and his best friend/fellow troublemaker Mac (played by Liam Lau Fernandez) have concocted a plan for Mac to place a set of school lockers on Lee, so that Lee can pretend that the lockers accidentally fell down on him in the school hallway.

After the lockers have been staged to look like they fell on Lee, he cries out in fake pain, while a teacher rushes out of a classroom to see what all the commotion is about and attends to him immediately, while other students watch. It’s not long before it’s clear that it was all a prank, since Lee has no injuries. He’s sent to the office of the school’s headmaster (played by Anthony Head), who promptly suspends Lee.

Lee tries to pretend that he has a valid claim for negligence, but the headmaster is unmoved and not falling for this obvious manipulation. He scolds Lee by saying, “You don’t give a toss about the lockers, Lee. You just like to cause trouble … We don’t indulge children. We make men. A scholarship here is rare, Lee. Very rare. You don’t realize how lucky you are. Hopefully, you will now.”

Just as the meeting is about to conclude, a teacher named Mr. Bates (played by Alex Macqueen) comes into the office with something that he found in Lee’s knapsack: A plastic bag with a small amount of marijuana and a joint. Lee says sarcastically, “Who planted that?” Lee now goes from being suspended to being expelled.

The marijuana actually belongs to Mac. While Lee is waiting outside for Lee’s father to pick him up from school, Mac says goodbye and offers to tell the headmaster the truth about owning the marijuana that was found in Lee’s knapsack. Lee thanks Mac but declines the offer because Lee doesn’t think it will change school officials’ minds, and it will also get Mac in trouble too. Before they say their goodbyes, they salute each other, but Mac turns his salute into showing his middle finger.

When Lee’s father (played by Steve Oram), who doesn’t have a name in the movie, arrives to pick up Lee and drive them home, Lee apologizes to his father for getting expelled. His father tells Lee, “It’s not your fault.” It’s a major hint that Lee is someone who’s probably spoiled and has parents who want to blame other people for the problems that Lee causes.

Lee getting expelled from school will become the least of this family’s problems. While driving home from school, a news program on the radio mentions that there’s a pandemic going on and there’s considerable debate over the government closing the borders. Lee’s father turns off the radio because he doesn’t want to hear any bad news.

The movie then fast-forwards three weeks later. Lee is outside his home, where the streets look like an apocalypse recently happened. Lee is so numb from the disaster that when he takes out trash to put in a large pile that’s on his front lawn, he ignores the body of a dead, bloody woman who’s sprawled out on the house’s driveway.

What happened? Vague details are given in bits and pieces, but the pandemic apparently has caused an apocalypse where a viral disease turns people into humans that attack. They’re not human flesh-eaters like zombies, but the people who’ve gone crazy from this disease will kill for no reason. Other people with the disease that don’t go crazy eventually die a painful death where they rot away.

That’s what’s happened to Lee’s father. Lee gets a phone call from his mother (voiced by Connie Hyde), who is stuck somewhere giving medical help to those in need. She tells him that she’s figured out that people who whose blood type is Type O-negative are immune to this deadly disease. She and Lee both have this blood type.

Lee’s mother is very worried about Lee being stuck in the house with Lee’s dying father. She tells him that when Lee’s father inevitably dies, she will eventually meet up with Lee at St. Mark’s School for Boys. Lee doesn’t want to go back there, but she doesn’t know why. Apparently, she never found out that he was expelled.

But when Lee’s father dies, Lee changes his mind goes back to the school. He’s motivated to go there after an infected man invaded the home and tried to attack Lee. At the now-abandoned school, Lee finds about 16 to 18 other students, Mr. Bates and a school health administrator called Matron (played by Jasmine Blackboro), who is in her 20s. She saves Lee from being attacked by a wild German Shepherd that was roaming on school property.

Mr. Bates is trying to bring some normalcy to their situation, by lecturing the students on searching for food and telling them that non-perishable food should be given the highest priority. Lee’s expulsion from the school is no longer relevant, but he’s now back under the watchful eye of Mr. Bates. Neither of them is happy about it. Mr. Bates tells the students about the students being at the school: “You may not feel it now, but this place is still giving you a head start.”

There’s one bright spot for Lee: His best friend Mac is among the orphaned students who have taken shelter in the school. Mr. Bates has made Mac his second in command of his team. It’s a decision that he will soon regret, as Mac becomes very power-hungry and destructive in ways that won’t be revealed in this review.

During one of Mr. Bates’ lectures, a fellow teacher named Mr. Hammond (played by Richard Elfyn) and a boy named Rowles (played by Harry Tuffin), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, burst into the room in a panic. Mr. Hammond and Rowles beg to be hidden because they say that someone is out to kill them. They both hide themselves in a closet in the room.

Shortly after that, Mr. Bates and the students find out who’s after Mr. Hammond and Rowles: a vengeful teenager named Claire Baker (played by Freya Parks), who’s accompanied by a man in his 30s named John Smith (played by Gordon Alexander). They both have rifles with them. Claire announces that she and John Smith are looking for two thieves.

She adds, “I represent Warren Town and the authority of Georgina Baker, former magistrate and mayor of Warren Parish Council.” When Mr. Baker tells her that they don’t know about any thieves, trigger-happy Claire doesn’t believe him. Claire correctly assumes that the people she’s looking for are hiding in the closet, so she and John begin shooting the closet.

What follows is a battle where John dies, Claire is held captive, and her mother Georgina (played by Samantha Bond) comes looking for her with some armed and dangerous people from Warren Parish Council. It’s explained in the movie how and why Claire zeroed in on the school in the search for her missing daughter. St. Mark’s School for Boys has a very large gate that can keep outsiders away, but the gate has openings that make it easy for people see inside and shoot guns through it.

The rest of “School’s Out Forever” is a meandering slog that shows what happens during this standoff. Mr. Bates, Mac and Lee do the most interacting with Georgina. They adamantly deny that Georgina’s daughter Claire is on the property. However, Georgina doesn’t really believe them because they won’t let her on the property to do a search.

Georgina, her loyal henchman Stanley (played by Ben Dilloway) and the rest of her posse refuse to leave and remain stationed outside the school gate. Georgina won’t let anyone who’s behind the school gates leave until she gets what she wants. The resulting standoff is monotonously stretched out with repetitive back-and-forth talks between both sides that end in stalemates.

At some point in the movie, Georgina doesn’t become the only antagonist for Lee and the other people at the school. Mac eventually does some despicable things that make him a threat to people’s safety. Lee then has to decide who’s worse: Georgina or Mac? The ultimate showdown and results are neither surprising nor suspenseful.

“School’s Out Forever” is not a completely horrible movie. It’s just disappointing how dull it is when the concept begged for better action sequences, improved dialogue and more exciting pacing. Because so much of the story takes place in the protective environment of the school, the dangers of the apocalypse and the pandemic take a back seat to a very run-of-the-mill hostage story.

There are also plot holes that can’t be ignored. In his phone call with his mother, Lee never bothers to ask her the address of where she is. And it’s never explained why he didn’t try to call her back. It’s also never explained how all those people hiding out in the school never got infected, when the students were sent out to look for food.

There’s at least one occasion during a food scavenger hunt where Mac encounters an infected person, but there’s no mention of Mac having the blood type that would give Mac immunity. It’s also never made very clear how people get infected, so the movie never explains what people are doing to protect themselves from getting infected. There are brief glimpses of a few people on the outside wearing masks, but almost all the people in this movie aren’t wearing masks during this pandemic. And there are scenes where the students are neatly dressed in their school uniforms, as if they’re not in the middle of an apocalypse where they have to fight for their lives.

It’s clear that the filmmakers were more concerned with staging violent scenes than thinking through many of the details that would’ve made this a more suspenseful and believable movie. The acting in the film isn’t terrible, but it isn’t remarkable either. Macqueen’s portrayal of Mr. Bates is the performance that has the best comedic timing, although that’s not saying much when the comedy fizzles out by the last 15 minutes, and the movie that just becomes a violent free-for-all. There’s a good concept that was waiting to be creatively expressed in “School’s Out Forever,” but that concept ended up just like the classes in St. Mark’s School for Boys after the apocalypse—abandoned and permanently dismissed.

Central City Media released “School’s Out Forever” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 18, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on February 15, 2021.

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