Art imitates life in more ways than one in "Downton Abbey: A New Era."
The Crawley family, which made the transition from a PBS series to multiplexes, has to deal with movies in "A New Era" when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) agrees for their house to be used as a silent film set. That gives writer Julian Fellowes room for an inside joke. When the dowager countess Violet (global treasure Maggie Smith) is asked about her interest in movies, she cracks, "I'd rather earn my living down a mine," a sentiment shared by Smith, who has repeatedly and loudly said she's had it up to her lacy collars with this role.
As in the first movie, there's quite a bit of speculation about the dowager's health in "A New Era," mostly in the (better) second half.
After a helpful recap from Kevin Doyle, who plays butler Molesley, the first hour or so feels sloppy and chaotic. There are so many continuing characters to fill us in on and quite a few new people to introduce, including the dapper director and star of the silent film — played by Hugh Dancy and Dominic West, respectively. If you're not already a fan, there's no way you'll be able to keep straight all of these pale people in fancy clothes.
Things settle down eventually and the characters remain an absolute pleasure. That starts with Violet, who's given plenty of souvenir-mug-ready putdowns, including another about "kinetographs": "I should have thought the best thing about films is you couldn't hear them. It would be even better if you couldn't see them." A quiet chat between Violet and frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton) is the highlight of the movie because it reminds us why we still care about these people.
Some characters get short shrift — Lady Edith is mostly along for the ride, Lady Mary's what's-his-name husband is MIA and I guess we're just pretending Lady Rose never happened? — but Fellowes carefully balances the stories to satisfy fans. He also introduces a fabulous new villa, in the south of France, that Violet has inherited for mysterious reasons. The earl (Hugh Bonneville), countess (Elizabeth McGovern) and other family members head to the French Riviera to check it out and, perhaps, unearth a big family secret. It's good, soapy fun that's based in what we know about these characters — exactly what we want from a "Downton" movie.
Things get even better when everyone returns to the family home. Fellowes dispenses with the subplots so he can pay attention to the Granthams in the final scenes, which rediscover the emotion and narrative momentum missing from the opening.
In the end, "A New Era" is a lot like each of the six seasons of "Downton Abbey" on PBS: Things start out shakily but end on a lovely, graceful note.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG for mild language.
Where: In area theaters.