Downton Abbey: A New Era — Review and Elizabeth McGovern Interview
Published 2:00 pm Wednesday, May 25, 2022
BY LAUREN BRADSHAW
Special to The Farmville Herald
DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA, is not only one of the best in the entire series, it is one of my favorite movies so far this year! Written by Julian Fellowes, with the entire ensemble cast returning, A NEW ERA is just the type of heartwarming, funny, feel-good movie we need at a time like this. Fellowes leans into everything we love about the series — the Dowager Countess’s sassy quips, fantastic costumes and set design, and most importantly the charming interactions between the Downton staff and the Crawleys — to give fans exactly what we want. In fact, some elements, like an outsized focus on Michelle Dockery’s velvety English accent, made me wonder how some of my fangirl tweets had found their way onto the big screen. The term “fan service” gets a bad rap. To me, it shows a true understanding and respect for the fandom, the people that make a franchise popular, and A NEW ERA is a perfect example of how to do fan service exceptionally.
I have been a huge fan of DOWNTON ABBEY since it began over a decade ago, so imagine how excited I was to speak to the incredible Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley! I have long-admired Elizabeth’s career, and not only was she one of the nicest people I have interviewed, she also provided thoughtful, sincere answers to my questions, which was an absolute delight! The fact we were able to reconnect again at the fabulous DC premiere, hosted by Focus Features and the British Embassy, made the night even more special.
A NEW ERA starts off in the late 1920s, with the Crawley family split between two separate summer adventures. The first, led by Mary (Michelle Dockery), involves a film crew coming to Downton to shoot a silent film; Mary was finally able to get her traditionalist father Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) to agree to the endeavor so they can use the money to fix Downton’s leaky roof. But that doesn’t mean the family members are prepared to stick around during the filming. It just so happens the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) was willed a villa in the south of France by a late love interest, so Robert, Cora, Edith (Laura Carmichael), Tom (Allen Leech), and their family members travel to France to settle the matter.
But of course, not everything is as fun and lighthearted as filmmaking and a French villa. The Dowager Countess has gotten more ill and Cora also isn’t acting herself. It’s clear Cora is really taking in the experiences of each day and she starts ensuring her family know how happy her life has been. Elizabeth explains, “There is one particular scene when they are sitting on the rock and thinking about the future and coming back to the house. At that point, in my mind, it really hits Cora that she might not be there. And what I loved about the way that was written is there is a sense for me that she has made a choice to decide that she has been happy, which I think is a choice. That is the thing about happiness that people don’t understand. You have to just decide to be… for me it was quite nice to suggest here’s this woman who has decided that it might be over for her, but it has been enough and she has been happy. And she’s decided to make it that way.”
What really stuck out to me about Cora’s storyline in the film was her character’s adorable, romantic relationship with her husband Robert. Elizabeth and Hugh have such believable, organic chemistry and I was wondering how they have built that over the years. “I have known Hugh for a very long time, before we even started [DOWNTON ABBEY]. And I have a feeling, I can’t say this for absolute certainty, but because we worked together on another show together called FREEZING is why I was cast because the director had seen that show. And Huge was cast [in Downton] before me. It’s a funny thing with Hugh. He and I never really need to talk about [the relationship] very much. We’ve never really dissected it. We just kind of fall into a very natural empathy with each other and what we are doing.”
I was especially interested in speaking to Elizabeth about the strength of the female characters on DOWNTON ABBEY. It is the women who are secretly running the show, even in a time where society wanted to keep feminine power contained. I love how strong Mary and the Dowager Countess are written, but I think Cora is underrated for the power she wields behind the scenes, and I made sure to tell Elizabeth that. “I think you’re absolutely right that there are very strong women in this piece, but their strength operates under the radar. It’s always on the domestic front. And I think you’re right to say Cora gracefully plays the system and accepts her lot, but if push came to shove she would still be standing when Robert falls apart. I think that is the way women did wield power and I am really happy the times have changed, particularly in the last couple of years having the conversations we have been having about things not proceeding the way they always have. I think that has been revelatory and positive, but it is interesting to see that women have always found a way.”
Let’s be real, I would love to catch up with the Crawleys every few years in charming movies like A NEW ERA, but to be honest this film is so good and wraps up everything so well, I can see it being the last of the series. Just in case that happens, I didn’t let my interview end without asking Elizabeth about my dream for a potential prequel, which would show how Cora and Robert met. “I have felt it would be really interesting to explore the clash of cultures Cora might have been experiencing all of this time as an American in England. It’s certainly a subject that used to fascinate Henry James, Edith Wharton, all of those writers. That is relatively unexplored… I think there are conversations about [the prequel], and of course that is Edith Wharton, that is The Buccaneers. And it’s been done before. The whole idea of the aristocracy looking towards the American dollar to keep going, it happened time and time again to very mixed, very interesting results.”
Fans of DOWNTON ABBEY are going to absolutely adore A NEW ERA, and honestly even if you have never seen the series, I think you will still have a great time at the theater. I laughed, I cried (okay, I sobbed), and loved catching up with the Crawleys once again.