This is a bittersweet finale fitting of the aristocratic and ever evolving Downton clan, thanks to the always charming cast, who've now played these roles for more than a decade. After so much past drama and scandal, the family and staff enjoy a mostly low-stakes story in A New Era as Lady Mary seeks to ease the financial burdens of the Abbey's upkeep and the rest of the family tries to figure out whether Violet had an affair with the French marquis. The Hollywood movie crew is fun to watch, particularly as Jack grows fond of and dependent on Mary, who's thriving in her role as Downton's ultimate decision maker. Age has thawed Lady Mary's frostiness; she's more accessible now that she gets along with Edith and misses her adventure-seeking husband, Henry (Matthew Goode), who doesn't appear in this film. Mary's banter with Jack and willingness to learn about the film business is refreshing, even if a tad forward. The downstairs staff all get mini subplots, with the exception of Anna and Bates, who've already been through so much trauma that it's actually a blessing. Even Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) gets to grow professionally (he becomes an impromptu script doctor) and personally (he and Miss Baxter continue to have feelings for each other).
But this isn't a movie you watch for the plot developments or for the new characters, no matter how entertaining it is to watch West act like a swashbuckling silent film heartthrob. This installment, like the one before, is best for existing Downton fans who don't need a refresher on who's who. Anna Robbins' period costume work once again impresses (even the swimsuits look spectacular), as does the production design by Donal Woods. The cinematography captures the two elegantly appointed aristocratic estates, lush landscapes, and the expressive close-up shots of characters in private conversation. As for the movie's grand dame -- Smith is nearing 90, so it's quite lovely for this seemingly final Downton movie to shine a special light on the opinionated, self-assured dowager countess. Smith has elevated her character far beyond being an uncompromising snob; she became Isobel's dear friend and Tom's champion, proving that even the most unlikely candidates can sometimes change with the times. With everyone upstairs and down settled, all the stories feel told. And considering that the real world gets pretty grim starting in 1929 (Black Monday, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War II), 1928 feels like a perfect year to end this beloved series.