Everything You Need To Know Before Seeing Downton Abbey: A New Era

The 2022 summer movie season has a new contender to combat the box office reign of "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," and its name is "Downton Abbey: A New Era." The British soap opera about the aristocratic Crawley family and their downstairs staff is such a phenomenon that it not only ran on television for over 6 seasons, but also managed to secure two feature films. Perhaps the greatest assets of "Downton Abbey" are its characters, played by a staggering ensemble that includes such names as Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter, and the ever-charming Dame Maggie Smith.

While "Downton Abbey" is certainly a recognizable IP, I think it's pretty exciting that an adult melodrama, primarily targeted towards an older audience, has the opportunity to thrive at the box office among the likes of Marvel superheroes. I've seen "A New Era" and thought it was a thoroughly charming, vibrant and emotional return to these characters. Although the events of the "Downton Abbey" films take on greater meaning with the added context of the show, the thing about this series is that this ensemble is so good at embodying these characters that you kind of get the gist of who they're playing, and what their place at Downton is rather easily. But if you would like to feel a little more prepared before you go into "A New Era," whether you're a loyal "Downton Abbey" fan or a newcomer, I've got you.

Six seasons is way too much for me to recap, so if you feel like you need an ultra-deep refresher on what happened during the series run, Focus Features has the perfect breakdown for you. I'll be focusing more on what happened during the 2019 film, in addition to other "Downton Abbey" tidbits that'll be sure to make your viewing of "A New Era" a more enjoyable experience. With that, let's check up on where we last left off.

A royal visit

"Downton Abbey" (2019) begins in a similar fashion as the opening scene of the television series with the arrival of important news by train. But rather than receiving word of the Titanic's sinking, which sends the Crawleys into a frenzy over its now deceased heir, the aristocratic family receives word that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be visiting Downton during their Royal tour. Nevertheless, it sends the estate into a frenzy as everyone attempts to get ready for the big day. Despite a foiled assassination attempt against the King, the affair goes about rather smoothly, having contributed another landmark occasion to Downton's storied history.

A downstairs coup

The coup refers not to the downstairs staff overthrowing Downton from the hands of the Crawleys, but the Queen's personal staff. (Although seeing them seize the place would be pretty fun.) Upon learning that they'll all be taking a backseat in serving the royals, Anna (Joanne Forggart) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), along with the rest of the Downton staff, plan a coup against their snooty replacements. With Anna putting head chef Monsieur Corbet (Phillippe Spall) to rest with a sleeping potion, footman Andy (Michael Fox) locking the head butler Mr. Wilson (David Haig) in his room, and the remainder of the royal staff being called away through a phony phone call, Downton is theirs for the taking, well, serving is more like it.

The subplot leads to my favorite scene in the film, in which the overexcited Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) lets it slip to the King and Queen that the dinner being served was all prepared by the Downton staff, notably Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). The slow pull-in on his panicked face after the room falls silent never fails to make me laugh. Thankfully, the Queen breaks the tension by making sure to give her compliments to the Downton staff. Mr. Molesley then performs an awkward curtsey, leaving the rich folk to their fanciful dinner. Meanwhile, everyone downstairs celebrates their scheming and the opportunity to bring honor to Downton.

Tom Branson's second chance at love

Besides Tom (Allen Leech) being the one to thwart an assassination attempt against the King, something the Irish Republican character would have scoffed at in the early seasons of the series, the character's last big development is that of a romantic nature. Having lost the love of his life Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) post-childbirth back in season 3, Tom has been left to raise his daughter, named after her mother, on his own with the Crawleys. He's had the occasional crush here and there since then, but it's the 2019 film where he falls for Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the maid to the Queen's lady in waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton).

The film later reveals that Lucy is Maud's illegitimate daughter of Maud's love affair with her late husband's Army servant from long ago. To keep her secret, she posed Lucy as her maid, revealing the truth about the extent of their relationship when she turned 18. Regardless, the film sees Tom and Lucy being smitten with one another with the hope that they may build a life together at some point. Given that "A New Era" opens with the two getting married, I think it's safe to say that we'll see more of the two lovebirds interact, and become one with the Crawley family.

The Dowager Countess carries on - zingers and all

Throughout the film, the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) is up to her usual agenda, whether it's reveling in family conversations or quipping with Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton). When she learns that Queen's lady-in-waiting is none other than Maud, an estranged relative she believes has no right to the Brampton estate that should have gone to her son, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Dowager attempts to challenge her. As she further learns the extent of Maud's empathetic predicament, the sassy Dowager drops her pursuit and leaves the door open for reconnection. But it's the Dowager's final scenes that unleash one of Downton's biggest developments.

Knowing full well the inevitablity of what's to come, the Dowager pulls Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) aside to tell her that she has fallen ill and likely doesn't have too long left to live. In that, she stresses the importance of Lady Mary taking over Downton as the Crawley matriarch. Considering how the events of "A New Era" concern the Dowager's mysterious romantic past, it's safe to assume that we haven't been rid of the Dowager's presence and her zingers just yet.

Where is Matthew Goode?

When Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) died in a tragic motor car accident during the series' third season, it left Lady Mary in quite the predicament in terms of a suitor. The show up to that point had been insistent on getting her married, so taking away her signature love interest just as they were about to start a happy life sure put a wrench in the ways of Downton. While grieving Matthew, Lady Mary puts her energy into helping run the estate with Tom. It just so happens that in the series' final season, she starts to fall for Matthew Goode's Henry Talbot. And by the series end, Lady Mary takes the devilishly handsome racecar driver as her husband.

Despite being a prominent member of the Crawley family, Goode's appearance in the 2019 feature is but a brief cameo, pulling into Downton towards the final act as a reminder that he's still kicking about. Although eagle-eyed "Downton Abbey" viewers may notice that Goode is nowhere to be seen in the promotional material for "A New Era." That's because the actor will be entirely absent from the new film due to obligations to another project ("The Offer") during the shooting of "A New Era."

Thomas Barrow briefly gets to experience the joys of being Queer

Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is one of the series' most interesting characters. He's probably had the greatest transformation of anyone on this show, starting as a scheming and manipulative Footman who excelled in sticking his nose in other people's business and ultimately becoming Mr. Carson's replacement as Downton's head butler. Thomas' Queerness is revealed in the very first episode when his brief affair with the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox) ends rather sourly, as the Duke threatens to out him should he say anything.

The 2019 film gave Thomas perhaps the most cathartic moment of Queerness in the series run. Not only does he form a close kinship with Mr. Ellis (Max Brown), the King's royal dresser, but Thomas also gets invited to an underground gay men's nightclub, where he's overwhelmed by the number of Queer men just like him. It's easily the happiest he's ever been, that is until he's arrested during a police raid, given the illegality of being Queer at the time. Thankfully, Mr. Ellis uses his status to spring Thomas out of jail.

In the film's final moment, Thomas and Mr. Ellis share a tender goodbye kiss, leaving the opportunity for the pair to possibly reconnect in the future. For the first time, Thomas carries a shred of hope for his love life. Although "A New Era" suggests that something may potentially blossom between Thomas and suave movie star Guy Dexter (Dominic West).

Mr. Carson will never retire

It doesn't matter that the series finale saw Mr. Carson finally accept the notion of spending retirement with the kind-hearted Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) because when Lady Mary comes calling, he'll never say no to her. With that, he valiantly returns to Downton to temporarily take over his butler duties, much to Thomas' annoyance. Considering that "A New Era" sees the former butler traveling with the Crawleys to France, I think it's safe to say that retirement will never be enough for him.

When does A New Era fit in the Downton Abbey timeline?

"A New Era" takes place in 1929, which is set two years after the first film, and 17 years since the series timeline began. The synopsis for the new film only tells half of the story:

From award-winning creator Julian Fellowes comes the motion picture event Downton Abbey: A New Era. The much-anticipated cinematic return of the global phenomenon reunites the beloved cast as they go on a grand journey to the South of France to uncover the mystery of the Dowager Countess' newly inherited villa.

What it doesn't mention is that the sprawling cast of "Downton Abbey" will be split in twain, as one group goes to explore the Dowager's lavish inheritance, while a silent film, meanwhile, is being shot at Downton as the new era of talking pictures looms right around the corner.

"Downton Abbey: A New Era" will be released in theaters nationwide on May 20, 2022.