The running joke throughout Downton Abbey: A New Era revolves around the horror the residents feel about “movie people” stomping about the grounds, putting their grubby Hollywood hands on everything.

At the start of the movie, Lord Grantham (a newly thin Hugh Bonneville) and company get an offer to let a London film company, Lion Films, shoot a silent film in the house, for a considerable sum of money. His Lordship and daughter Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) are torn between their desire not to desecrate the family shrine and their need to fix an ancient roof that is so badly in need of repair they must place dozens of buckets in the attic to capture the flood of rainwater.

The joke, of course, is that everyone in the film expressing their revulsion at the vulgar “movie people” – most vociferously, of course, Carson the retired butler (Jim Carter) and upholder of all standards of British propriety — is a movie person himself or herself.

Art imitating life

Indeed, the entire cast of the long-running and immensely popular TV series and film franchise – almost all of whom make an appearance in the new movie — has been doing for more than a decade precisely what the fictional film crew is shown doing throughout the Downton movie, stomping about the house and grounds, setting up lights and camera equipment, and delighting audiences all over the world in the process.

During the opening weekend for the movie, Downton Abbey: A New Era, a sequel to the 2019 film Downton Abbey, the similarities and contrasts between the fictional movie people on the screen and the real-life movie people in the daily tabloids couldn’t have been starker.

The legal showdown between actors Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard in Depp’s US$50 million defamation lawsuit had just entered its final week at trial, and the alleged excesses of the real movie people – from physical fights, drugs and adultery to deliberately defecating in beds for revenge — made what appears in the Downton film look like mild faux pas.

There are two basic storylines in the film. In the first, Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), announces her intention to will an estate in the south of France she is inheriting from a long-ago French beau to her great-granddaughter Sybbie, the child of her late granddaughter Lady Sybil Crawley and longtime estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech).

Half of the house, both owners and staff, travels to the South of France to inspect the French property and solve the mystery of why Lady Violet has been given it in the first place. Could it be that Lord Grantham is actually not Lord Grantham after all?

The other half of the house remains to deal with the “movie people” and the shooting of what soon turns out to be a doomed silent film. The drama of the film shoot is the more interesting of the two stories – and mirrors, to a degree, the drama of the Depp/Heard trial.

In the silent film, the leading lady is a blonde goddess named Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) who has the manners and accent of a London streetwalker – stunningly beautiful but with elocution that would make Eliza Doolittle, before she meets Henry Higgins, sound like a duchess.

The male star, a dashing Clark Gable lookalike named Guy Dexter (Dominic West), is precisely the opposite. He is self-deprecating, charming, painfully but resignedly aware that he is not a real actor like those on London’s famed stages. Halfway through the Downton movie, the crew of the silent film gets the word they must shut down production because, it turns out, no one wants to see silent films now that “talkies” are all the rage.

Yet with the help of the entire Downton household, the film crew figures out how to turn their silent film into a talkie – with Lady Mary voicing and recording the dialogue of the female star, lending her posh upper-class accent to the blonde starlet. In the process, the domineering actress Myrna Dalgleish reveals her own terror that, due to her accent, her career is now likely over. She can’t say a word onscreen without her real background, thanks to the odd British class system, being revealed.

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

Anyone watching the new Downton movie couldn’t help but think of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Like the handsome leading man in the silent film, Depp has tried his best to be charming and self-effacing in court, as his legal team depicted his ex-wife as a screeching Hollywood diva of the first order. His female attorney openly described Heard as a gold-digging adulteress who supposedly promised to give her $7 million divorce settlement to charity but has yet to do so.

Yet like the actress in the fictional film, audiences can’t help but feel some sympathy for Heard – a young beauty, like so many young beauties, chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood dream machine.

Anyone who has listened to snippets of the depressing testimony, day after day, sees both Heard and Depp as tragic, pathetic figures, their souls poisoned by the instant gratification that their beauty and immense wealth give them. Amber Heard is beautiful, successful, and very rich, and yet comes across as utterly miserable. Depp, for all his own wealth and success, had to endure the public speculation that his wife engaged in affairs with the likes of Elon Musk and James Franco, a claim she denies.

This is indeed another contrast with the Downton movie. One of the subplots involves a budding but frustrated romance between Lady Mary and the silent-turned-talkie movie director Jack Barber, played by Hugh Dancy. Mary’s husband Henry Talbot is not in the film, off galivanting around the world as an adventurer and racing car driver. Mary is plainly attracted to the handsome, hard-working and considerate director.

At one point, he asks Mary directly if he may kiss her. She considers it demurely, reluctantly says no, and then explains that what she wants is not the most important thing in her world.

And of course, that is the moral center of the Downton franchise generally – that individuals are part of bigger communities of family, households, and even villages to which they owe allegiance and respect. Individuals come and go, one character says at a crucial point in the movie, but the family, and the household, remain.

This is one reason why so many people love the Downton series and films. As corny and idealized as they are, they paint a picture of a passing world in which family endures – and individuals are part of a bigger community that is home. This is a lesson that the real-life “movie people” – the wonderful cast, crew and producers of the Downton Abbey franchise, and, of course, its gentle-hearted creator Julian Fellowes – still want to show us.

Robert J. Hutchinson writes about the intersection of politics and ideas. He latest book is What...