This past Thursday my Good Wife and I went to see “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” We were joined in the next aisle by our esteemed editor, Bob Mason, and the three of us had the theater to ourselves. The film is the second full-length movie to be made based upon the PBS television series that ran from 2011 to 2016.
The acting, the scenery and the photography are brilliant. The setting is 1928, thus carrying on 16 years after the initial television production that noted the death of the heir to the title and property in the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic in 1912. This time a new twist is part of the story, as the Crawley family goes to the South of France to see a villa that the dowager Countess, played again by Dame Maggie Smith, has inherited.
The acting is excellent, but, as with the PBS series and the first full-length movie, the scenes are to a great extent dominated by the settings attendant to Highclere Castle. The present building is a modification of the previous 17th-century structure, built during the reign of King Charles II. The 1840s re-building was carried out in the then prevailing Gothic and Jacobean Revival styles. The complex is listed as Grade I among historic British architectural achievements.
The present owner of the estate, George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, is the great-grandson of the 5th Earl, also a George, who lived a lavish life at Highclere, collecting motor cars and dabbling in archeology. He is most remembered for having financed the work of the Egyptologist, Howard Carter, in discovering the tomb of the Pharoah Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito while in Egypt, and he died in Cairo in April 1923. His personal collection of artifacts from the tomb forms a museum display at Highclere.
The extensive grounds and gardens of Highclere were planned and laid out in the 18th century by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, perhaps the greatest landscape architect in history. Viewers of Downton Abbey get to see the expansive vistas and designs that he brought forth. The park is listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the diversity of its plantings.
Brown earned his nickname from telling his clients that their grounds had the “capability” of improvement. Over the last two centuries, the owners of Highclere have been propagating different species, most notably the Highclere holly, a hybrid developed there in 1845.
The cast members of Downton Abbey have some interesting relationships of their own. Jim Carter, in his role as Carson, the butler, in real life is married to Lady Maud, played by Imelda Staunton. I do not know if she pronounces the “u” in her surname, or follows the Virginia custom, saying “Stanton.” Andrew Parker, the rising butler, and Lady Edith are a real-life couple as Michael C. Fox and Laura Carmichael.
The current film presents several surprises in its course and is a good evening’s entertainment. The expense of maintaining an estate of the magnitude of Highclere has been alleviated by the income brought to the Earl of Carnarvon by the production of Downton Abbey. Significantly, one of the subplots centers on the leaking roof, which in itself mirrors a concern for the house itself, as the roof has been replaced in recent years.
My Good Wife and I found the film to be a great watch. I trust the same can be said for our beloved editor.