As a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey sustained six seasons worth of interest by allowing characters to develop as they faced new challenges, a socially unacceptable romance or the waning of rigid class distinctions.
Then there were the costumes and luxurious trappings of Britain in the 1920s, not to mention the contrast between the servants and those who dwelled above them.
As a movie franchise, Downton Abbey is another matter, often reducing its appeal to costumes, previously developed affection for some of the major characters, plush settings, and, most reliably, Maggie Smith’s bite as the indomitable Violet Crawley.
Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives in theaters as another helping of British comfort food; the movie ties up more loose ends and introduces two new elements. A journey to France (Lady Crawley inherits a villa in Southern France from a long-ago admirer) and a film crew descends on hallowed Downton Abbey grounds.
The film's director (Hugh Dancy) deems the estate a great location to make a silent film about a gambler and the woman who loves him. Actors at Downton Abbey? Scandalous.
As the actors playing the stars of the film within the film, Dominic West and Laura Haddock stake a claim for a movie of their own, even if a joke involving the difficulty of transferring Haddock’s character's lower-class accent to talkies isn’t entirely fresh.
The trip to France adds a question that torments Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) but struck me as a heavily underlined reminder of Robert’s intractable Englishness.
By now, Mary (Michelle Dockery) has taken over the estate. She agrees to allow the film crew to trample through the great house because she needs money to repair the leaky roof, an obvious sign that the rudiments of the old order are falling prey to wear.
It doesn’t help the film that Robert Crawley, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) the butler who defends the old ways, and others are shipped off to France, leaving the movie to seesaw between countries and making room for an appearance by Nathalie Baye as the irritated widow of the man who left Lady Crawley his villa.
Predictable and committed to swaddling fans in Downton trappings, this helping of the series seems to have lost touch with the need for sharply honed conflict. Even Smith's barbs seem to have lost some of their sting.
Any movie with legions of devotees presents a challenge for reviewers. For some, another encounter with familiar characters from the servant and upper-crust crowds will be sufficient.
Though frayed around the edges, the plush Downton environment still offers undeniable voyeuristic pleasures.
And, of course, the actors know how to sell this material, even in the smaller roles. Kevin Doyle, for example, has a brief but sharp turn as Mr. Mosley a teacher who discovers his true calling as a screenwriter after the silent production loses its funding and must convert to a talkie.
The movie’s biggest development can’t be discussed without spoilers but it passes like a sigh, more a self-reflexive tribute to the heart of Downton than an emotional peak.
No point quibbling. If you're not a fan, you needn't bother. If you are, nothing I say likely will deter you.
Writer Julian Fellowes, the creative force behind the Downton series, and director Simon Curtis give A New Era the feel of a well-upholstered chair into which even the less-than-enthusiastic among us (that would be me) gracefully can sink while being lulled into untroubled acceptance.