Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) gets involved with a movie production while Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) watches. Photo courtesy of Focus Features
LOS ANGELES, May 12 (UPI) -- Downton Abbey: A New Era, in theaters May 20, drops viewers right back into the world of 1920s England. New viewers don't get so much as an introduction to each character, so the film definitely feels like it's continuing a conversation as if everyone is familiar. Newbies will still be able to catch up in short order.
A movie production rents Downton Abbey as a filming location, leading to a culture clash of Hollywood types with the lords and staff of the manor. Meanwhile, an old lover of Violet Grantham's (Maggie Smith) leaves her his French villa in his will.
Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) visit the Montmirail family to settle Violet's affairs. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) wisely sends Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to accompany them to keep him away from the filming at Downton.
All of the supporting characters interact with those two main storylines and may have some minor events of their own. The inner circle gets the most screen time and doles out additional scenes as the plot can spare them.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) interacts the most with the film crew, including director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) and stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock). The crew is coping with the advent of sound in movies.
Essentially they go through the same shenanigans as depicted in Singin' in the Rain, but it's fun to throw the Downton Abbey characters into them. Every once in a while, the film will visit Violet upstairs so she can say something catty about the Hollywood people.
Downton itself still gets more screen time than the French villa, but that subplot offers an attractive new location to view. The villa has a brighter aesthetic than Downton but is just as lavish.
There are still secrets within Downton Abbey after all these years. There are some tragedies and some new connections that do indeed signal a new era.
Blossoming out from those central characters, Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Barrow (Robert James-Collier) have some nice scenes with the movie stars. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) becomes an endearing fanboy.
Any further out and the characters mostly do their duty depicting their characters fulfilling their jobs as staff. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) seems like she's along for the ride in France, while Tom (Allen Leech) and Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), whose wedding opens the film, develop their marriage in the background of the major plots.
Even the main stories in A New Era can feel a bit rushed, though. Every scene is short, like it's a supercut of what would normally be an entire season. The first Downton Abbey movie didn't feel quite so crammed.
Still, even another two hours with the Downton Abbey family was never guaranteed so the latest visit with the characters doesn't sell fans short. Perhaps there will be some deleted scenes on the DVD to let the characters breathe a bit more.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.