Oh Heavens, How Ever Will ‘Downton Abbey’ Enter a ‘New Era’?

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Downton Abbey: A New Era (CREDIT: Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

Starring: Nathalie Baye, Hugh Bonneville, Samantha Bond, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Paul Copley, Jonathan Coy, Brendan Coyle, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Haddock, Sue Johnston, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Alex MacQueen, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesly Nicol, Douglas Reith, David Robb, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Charlie Watson, Dominic West, Penelope Wilton, Jonathan Zaccaï

Director: Simon Curtis

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Hints of Impropriety

Release Date: May 20, 2022 (Theaters)

In another area of my work outside this Movie Review Rat Race, I was recently working on a list of the Downton Abbey cast’s real-life romantic partners, which resulted in me becoming inexplicably excited for the latest cinematic excursion to the Crawley estate. I say “inexplicably” because I never watched an episode of the original TV series (though I did check in for the first movie). I certainly soaked up the Downton phenomenon through pop culture osmosis, as several of my family members were devoted viewers, and I bore witness to its not insignificant awards show presence. Meanwhile, several of its regulars have popped up in movies and shows that I have seen. Which is all to say, A New Era felt like a cozy trip back home for me, and I imagine that will be even more true for longtime fans.

It’s 1928, and epochal changes are afoot on both sides of the Atlantic. Downton is falling into disrepair, while thousands of miles away Hollywood is marching forward uneasily into the talkie era. These two stories collide when a film crew rents out the mansion to mount a massive silent production. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) stays behind and becomes sweet on the director (Hugh Dancy), while the rest of the family heads to the south of France and discovers some potentially life-altering secrets about their matriarch’s past. Each plot twist is reacted to like it’s the end of the world, then there’s a gentle reminder that all this drama isn’t worth overreacting to, the formula repeats, and that’s all part of the charm.

That understated over-the-top approach is most fully embodied in the case of the Dowager Countess, with Maggie Smith still as adorably cutting as ever at 87. Everyone suspects that these may be her last days, and they all make a big to-do about it, while simultaneously insisting not to make a big to-do about it. Meanwhile, the Countess herself is as healthy and mentally sharp as the script needs her to be in one scene, while as unhealthy and close to death’s door in another scene as the dramatic stakes require. Really, though, we should all be so lucky to have such a coherent goodbye from a loved one. Downton Abbey is and always has been light and frothy, but it cares about its people.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is Recommended If You Like: Getting all worked up but then realizing that everything is perfectly fine, more or less

Grade: 3 out of 5 Talkies

Talking Dog Alert August 2019 Edition: ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ Review

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CREDIT: Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Costner, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole, McKinley Belcher II, Ryan Kiera Armstrong

Director: Simon Curtis

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Doggy Messes

Release Date: August 9, 2019

The “racing” in The Art of Racing in the Rain refers to the Formula One circuit, but the real race is how fast Kevin Costner can get out all of his canine voiceover narration. There’s been a mini-explosion of talking dog (or rather, thinking-out-loud dog) movies lately, and this might be the most verbose one yet. Enzo the golden retriever wants to make sure that he fulfills all his familial duties, partly because he believes that being a good boy will help out where he ends up in his next life. If he’s good enough, he might even come back as a human, so that karmic balance sheet must be in the most tip-top shape possible. So he makes sure to explain to the audience everything that he must, and that means a heavy script burden for Costner, who keeps it laconic but also plenty dense. If the race to be the Best Cinematic Dog is measured in number of words, then Enzo takes it by the bone.

It’s nice that Enzo has it all figured out (or at least acts like he does) since much of the human interaction around him is infuriating. His owner Denny (Milo Ventimiglia) is an unfailingly sweet guy and devoted family man, but he gets things off on the wrong foot with his father-in-law Max (Martin Donovan), who makes just about no effort to deflate the tension. Max raises some legitimate concerns about Denny’s chosen profession on the track: it’s inherently dangerous, there’s little financial security, and it threatens to keep him away from his wife and daughter for long stretches of time. But Denny makes extra safety efforts and occasionally turns down races to specifically address these concerns. And one would hope that Max could put things in perspective when his daughter (Amanda Seyfried) is stricken with cancer. But instead he gets into a ludicrous custody battle with his son-in-law. This absurdity makes me wish that The Art of Racing in the Rain were filtered even more through Enzo’s outlook. His beliefs about reincarnation might not fit with everyone’s conception of existence, but they are a whole lot more sweetly satisfying than the machinations of fantastically stubborn in-laws.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is Recommended If You Like: A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, Watching old Formula One races

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Laps