by Geoffrey Churchman

Although I wasn’t a regular viewer of the TV series, I was suitably impressed with the first movie from 2019 despite its shallow story of a visit from the British Royal Family, and this follow up is even better.

It is set in the same stately manor/country estate and seems to be circa 1929 as one of the storylines involves a film production company which wants to film a new movie in the home. But it’s almost at the end of the silent era when inter-titles to show dialog were used, while a live pianist in the orchestra pit or otherwise near the front would play an instrumental accompaniment. Talkies were soon to appear (Blackmail of 1929 is frequently cited by film historians as a landmark film, and is often cited as the first truly British “all-talkie” feature film).

The environment of a privileged gentry who employ a little army of servants was shown by the Upstairs, Downstairs series of the 1970s to create fascination in America where the class system based mostly on inheritance which pervaded Britain at least into the 1980s was at odds with the ‘American Dream’ — anyone can make it big if they work smart and hard enough.

Unlike James Cameron’s Titanic, both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey were sympathetic in their portrayal of the British ruling class: reasonably intelligent types who weren’t out to exploit their employees, or at least not beyond the the social observances of the era. ‘A new era’ also points out that the costs of running a stately home like this one weren’t cheap. Most such well-off manor owners probably had income from mines and factories (neither of which will provide that today. Investment in high tech and central city real estate is needed). The servants all knew their place and accepted it. In Downton Abbey they get a good amount of screen time, but it’s the property owners who have their fun which get the bulk of it, and the script shows their lifestyle with a subtle comedy of manners, pathos and social events involving varying degrees of formality.

The other concurrent storyline in ‘a new era’ is the news that Lady Violet (played by Maggie Smith) the elderly mother, has been bequeathed a villa in the South of France near Toulon. ‘Villa’ here signifies not a house but an elaborate mansion equivalent to what they have in England, but of course with different architecture and a colour scheme that is mostly white with some pastels. Her son and his wife and a couple of offspring, plus of course valets, head to the Riviera by ferry, the Blue Train (not shown) and then a fleet of three limousines to take care of possession.

(I have wondered whether the same class distinction applied in France as in the UK, despite the then ruling class being dealt to by participants in the French revolution of the late 18th century with the guillotine. An inkling that it still exists a little came in 1986 when with a first class Eurail Pass — the only form they came in — I got in a first class carriage in Chambéry. A posh-looking woman in the next seat turned and said: “Excusez moi, Monsieur, vous savez que vous etes en première?” My response, “oui, je suis en première” resulted in an ‘Oh’ look.)

The French scenes are rather a contrast to the British and include some in a town, a private beach and a jazzy party outside in the grounds one evening.

Back home, the production of the silent movie runs into problems when the producers decide they need to film a talkie. The leading man has a suitable voice, but the leading lady doesn’t: her working class origins are betrayed and there’s no time for a Pygmalion-type transformation.

All the elements of the movie are superb: characterisation, script, acting, wardrobe, cinematography, set design and locations with diligent attention to period detail, plus excellent direction and editing. My test of a good movie is one that holds my attention throughout and this does. Recommended.

Downtown Abbey II: a new era (125 minutes) is screening at the Shoreline.