*Warning: Spoilers ahead*

Watching Downton Abbey: A New Era without seeing the first film or a single episode is very intimidating, to put it mildly.

Before you ask—yes, this move was intentional. Instead of binge-watching several hours of missed episodes to prepare for this installment, I thought: What would happen if I just watched A New Era as a standalone film? Would it still hold up for a newcomer who's more than a decade late to the tea party? Or would it come across as a convoluted spectacle that's targeted specifically to loyal fans?

As excited as I was to finally meet the beloved Crawleys that I'd heard so much about, there was that nagging feeling that I hadn't really done my homework. Still, I've always held to the belief that a great installment can stand on its own two feet, keeping viewers invested with strong storytelling and just enough details to reveal exactly what's going on. So yes, I took my chances and watched the two-hour feature, having only seen a few snippets and teasers that I vaguely remember.

Fast-forward to the rolling credits and, surprisingly, I'm not ready to bid farewell to this aristocratic family.

For those who haven't seen the series but want to live dangerously (I'd like to think I'm not the only one), you'll be happy to know that A New Era opens with a brief recap of events from the movie's predecessor. In a nutshell, Downton Abbey (the first film) follows the Crawleys and their servants as they host the king and queen of England, but this sparks a bit of chaos—especially between the royal staff and the downstairs workers. The film ends with a budding romance between Tom and Lucy and a heartbreaking confession from Violet. And now, A New Era picks up right where it left off, with Tom and Lucy's wedding.

After the occasion, the Crawleys learn that Violet inherited a villa in the south of France from a mysterious old friend, who has recently passed away. When the deceased owner's son invites Violet and her family to visit, Robert, Cora, Tom, Lucy, Edith and Bertie head off without the matriarch, who's in no condition to travel. Meanwhile, Lady Mary stays behind to supervise a handsome director and his crew as they take over Downtown to create a new film.

a new era
Focus Features

Within the first 15 minutes of this movie, I can already understand why so many fans are obsessed with this franchise. For one, there's the brilliant writing, which weaves in real-life events (like the end of the silent film era) while tackling themes that range from classism to family dynamics and, most importantly, the inevitability of change. It's clear that quite a few members of the family prefer to cling to tradition—especially considering their reactions to the filming project. But that also serves as a wakeup call for the family, given how quickly the cast, director and crew have to adapt when they discover that "talkies" are now all the rage.

Maggie Smith's epic delivery of witty one-liners makes her an easy favorite, and the chemistry between Lady Mary and Jack Barber is thick enough to cut through. Sophie McShera also shines as the ambitious downstairs cook, Daisy, who manages to singlehandedly save the day by having a bold pep-talk with the movie's star. But aside from these standout performances, the film also delivers plenty of drama and touching moments. In the south of France, for instance, Violet's son, Robert, learns something troubling about his mother's past and gets hit with another curveball when his wife shares a long-hidden secret—one that drives him to tears.

It certainly packs an emotional punch, but this particular scene—especially Cora's claim to have "loved him first"— is just one of several moments where I recognize the need for more details. I thought, "How exactly did their relationship begin? And what did she do to win him over?!" Then of course, there is Barrow hinting at his romantic history, and I can't help but wonder about his backstory, especially as a gay man living in the 1920s. But though I had (and have) questions, A New Era is still enjoyable without having the full context. With fascinating plot lines, compelling characters, picturesque landscapes and elegant period costumes, it still has all the makings of a good standalone film that's worth watching.

Now, excuse me while I finally binge-watch the entirety of Downton Abbey.

PureWow Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Downton Abbey: A New Era is a charming period piece that has plenty to say about embracing the modern world while trying to preserve legacy. With its complex characters, strong writing and timely themes, it will appeal to loyal fans and newcomers alike.

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