Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
United Kingdom/USA, 2022. Universal Pictures, Carnival Film & Television. Screenplay by Julian Fellowes. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Produced by Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge. Music by John Lunn. Production Design by Donal Woods. Costume Design by Maja Meschede, Anna Robbins. Film Editing by Adam Recht.
By the time we reached the sixth season of the phenomenally successful television series that employed infectious soap opera to chart the dismantling of British social class structures following the first World War, it was already becoming quite apparent that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes was growing thin on ideas but was simply not strong enough to turn down the money being handed to him. The compelling concerns of the first season, mainly around inheritance upstairs and treachery downstairs, was exciting, but it eventually gave way to characters simply looking for a matching sets of drapes by the show’s end; the first film adaptation in 2019 did suggest the possibility that there was still some life to be found in the adventures of the multitude of characters that Fellowes had created throughout the show’s very celebrated run, but the bloom is a bit off the rose with this second film, which feels somewhat like they’re squeezing hard to find reasons to keep things going, but can’t manage much more than an excuse for a sunny holiday and a series of conflicts that are far too easily managed and solved.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, whose spirit has clearly moved on to other things) has taken hold of her role as director of operations at the grand manor and is given the task of deciding if a proposition that has come her way is worth entertaining: a film director (Hugh Dancy) has asked if he may shoot a period piece on her ancestral grounds, an abhorrent idea to the generations before her that Mary agrees to because of the hefty monetary donation that accompanies the request (a shot of a few drops of rain dripping into washbasins in the attic informs us that Downton is in disrepair and the cash infusion will come very much in handy). This means that a film crew will come to run amok among the hallowed halls of the Abbey, with two new-money upstart movie stars Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) moving in as temporary guests, all of which Mary must oversee while the rest of her family decamps to the south of France.
Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) has learned of a recent inheritance of a villa on the Riviera left to her by an old flame, which her son Robert (Hugh Bonneville) worries is the thin edge of the wedge of a much bigger scandal, since he has no idea who this deceased Frenchman is and why he left his mother a perfectly gorgeous house. The Granthams voyage to their new acquisition to get an eyeful of both the house and its inhabitants, and while sunning themselves under a hot sun in a place that looks like Hercule Poirot will jump out at any moment and start making accusations, the family try their best to be polite to the dead man’s amiable son (Jonathan Zaccaï) and angry mother (a radiant Nathalie Baye) while still fully prepared to turn them out. Lady Violet, who has remained home to achieve a glorious end in the most convenient manner possible, means to even out the future bequests of her great-grandchildren by leaving this particular property to little Sibby, which is likely Fellowes’ latest in a long line of reminders to Jessica Brown Findlay that she shouldn’t have slain the golden goose in pursuit of a career that never really happened.
Meanwhile, back home the downstairs staff are thrilled about the presence of film stars in their midst, young Daisy (Sophie McShera) particularly anxious to get to know her favourite actress; Myrna, though, is on edge about the impending arrival of talkies and the disaster they will spell for her tawdry accent, and compensates by spreading her vulgarity wherever she can, including being rude to the servants (a low-class version of a similar plot in the past with Lily James’ Lady Rose). Guy, on the other hand, couldn’t be more congenial, particularly taken with our handsome butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier), whose duties he persistently engaging him in tete-a-tetes that are a slow lead-up to a much more serious proposition (Fellowes, being straight, conservative, well-meaning and noble, wants us to believe that gay men make life-changing plans with each other before ever even taking off their gloves, a wistful reminder of the days before one was forced to send explicit nudes just to get a date).
Everything about this film is pleasant, even the presence of death and disease is presented as something breezy and amusing, and there isn’t a single fire that sparks up that isn’t immediately stamped out without much difficulty: Cora (the always lovely Elizabeth McGovern) has some concerning fatigue, Daisy wants to set Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) up with her more-or-less father-in-law Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), Mary is tempted to cheat on her (absent) husband Matthew Goode with Hugh Dancy (as if there’s a difference), and Robert worries that he’s not the biological son of the man who raised him. One scene, sometimes one line is all it takes to wrap these issues up and move to the next elegantly staged conundrum, but too few of them involve the exciting collisions of characters that were juicy in the past: if Mary and Edith are getting along and Violet and Isobel are being kind to each other, is it even your nanny’s Downton Abbey, or just one of those Christmas specials meant to keep the ravenous fans quiet until the next season?
There are no moments that particularly stand out, but this cash-cow sequel won’t turn off anyone who is heavily invested in the experience. Stately and smooth, with the kind of humour that will thrill anyone who lives for that moment in The Sound of Music when the nuns steal the carburetor, this is another two-plus hours of tablecloth porn that is at least kept from ever being tacky or boring by the remarkably talented cast filling every single role. It’s a shame, though, that Fellowes, being busy with so many other concurrent projects, could barely come up with more for his plotting than a reworking of elements of Gosford Park (Smith more or less repeats her own lines about the ignoble profession of filmmaking) with a liberal amount of stealing from Singin’ In The Rain.