Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG) **
Casablanca Beats (12A) ***
The Velvet Queen (12A) ****
Perhaps the best that can be said about Downton Abbey: A New Era is that it’s compulsively pleasant. Once again written by Downton creator Julian Fellowes (Simon Curtis is on directing duties), this sequel to the big screen spin-off from the hit TV show brings back much of the original cast for a sort of extended farewell in which everyone more or less lands on their feet. Inheritance issues, social scandal, illness and the arrival of a new populist art form referred to by one disapproving character as “kinema” might emerge as potential bumps in the road for both the ultra-privileged Crawley clan and their beloved servants, but, as is often the way with the wealthy, bumps are all they are and fans can enter the cinema secure in the knowledge that no great tragedy will befall any of the characters they’ve come to love over the course of the new film’s two-hours-plus run-time.
There certainly hasn’t been the mass cull implied by the “New Era” subtitle. Indeed, the film could more accurately have been subtitled “End of an Era” given almost all the plotlines revolve around the original show’s key characters, starting with Maggie Smith’s ailing Dowager Countess, whose mysterious inheritance of a villa in the south of France allows Fellowes to keep alive the classic British TV-to-film tradition of sending half the characters off on holiday so that stuffy Brits can be flustered by foreigners – or, in this case, shown up to be a tiny bit fastidious as the Crawleys (led by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) come face-to-face with the well-to-do chicness of a French marquis whose family they’re about to kick out of their plush Riviera property. Potential conflict established, Fellowes elects to resolve it almost immediately so that all the characters can swan around in the sun being nice to each other.
Meanwhile, back in Downton, the eldest Crawley daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), is overseeing the arrival of a film crew who have hired out the estate to shoot a new silent movie starring a dashing matinee idol (Dominic West) and a squeaky voiced diva (Laura Haddock) who’s seen the writing on the wall with the emergence of the talkies – a development that allows Fellowes (clearly a little bereft of inspiration) to ransack elements of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park and, more outrageously, the entire plot of Singin’ in the Rain. Witless quips about the déclassé nature of the film industry duly follow as the film contrives to give Lady Mary a chaste flirtation with the film-within-a-film’s director (Hugh Dancy) while also giving the downstairs help a little taste of glamour by having them fill in for the pesky extras who stop showing up for work when the production runs out of money and can’t pay them. That the latter plot turn is presented as a dreams-come-true moment says something about where this film’s sympathies lie. Perhaps this fantasy isn’t quite as pleasant after all.
The let’s-put-on-a-show optimism of kids finding their voice for the first time gets a worthwhile update in Casablanca Beats, a hip-hop flavoured coming-of-age drama about a group of Moroccan teenagers learning to question the repressive attitudes and adult hypocrisies they see all around them. Set in an arts-oriented youth centre in Sidi Moumen – an economically deprived suburb of Casablanca likened by one of the attending kids to the Bronx, the tough New York neighbourhood from which hip-hop emerged in the 1970s – the film revolves initially around the arrival of Anas (Anas Basbousi), a former rapper whose streetwise style doesn’t go down well with centre’s administrators. Having established him as a rule-breaking, inspirational teacher, though, writer/director Nabil Ayouch smartly passes the mic to his young cast as they learn to use rap to articulate who they are while negotiating complicated home lives, religious obligations and gender inequality. It’s a tried and tested formula, but with the cast all playing fictionalised versions of themselves it feels as if there’s more at stake here than in the average Fame knock-off.
In The Velvet Queen, French writer Sylvain Tesson joins wildlife photographer and filmmaker Vincent Munier on an epic trek through the Tibet Plateau to try and catch a rare glimpse of snow leopards in their natural habitat. Co-directed by Munier and Marie Amiguet, what follows is partly a philosophical inquiry into the value of isolation and partly a majestic nature doc, one that’s fully attuned to the richness of the surrounding ecosystem and manages to convey this through a combination of breathtaking cinematography, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave's plaintive score, and its makers’ understanding of the delicate balance that exists between them and the wildlife they’re observing. They’re the lumbering interlopers, admits Tesson at one point, and it gradually emerges that they’re being watched every step of the way by the animals they’re on a quest to observe. Given this intriguing who’s-really-watching-who theme, the film is oddly incurious about Tesson’s own reasons for joining Munier (he published his own account of the expedition, The Art of Patience, in 2019 and the directors have perhaps assumed that his extraordinary story is more famous outside of France than it actually is). But as a nature film that gets beyond the visual and narrative clichés of the format, it’s never less than absorbing
Downton Abbey is on general release from 29 April; Casablanca Beats is on selected release and on demand from Curzon Home Cinema from 29 April; The Velvet Queen is on selected release and on demand from modernfilms.com from 29 April.