By Tim Jackson
Why has Downton Abbey, the film and the series, been so successful? We are given a romanticized vision of essential “Britishness,” a nostalgic version of the class system.
Downton Abbey, directed by Michael Engler. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner, Somerville Theatre, West Newton, and Boston Common.
Merely hearing the theme of Downton Abbey will set the hearts of fans racing (there are also lyrics by Don Black, who wrote the words for Born Free, but that’s another story). Composer John Lunn’s score for the film version/sequel of the award-winning series initially accompanies a mechanized opening. A steam engine traverses the countryside, carrying a mysterious gentleman. At the same time, a letter moves through the countryside to the Crawley estate, informing the family that the King and Queen will visit for a night and a day while on a tour of Yorkshire. There is also request for a parade and grand ball. Hearts soar and nerves are on edge at Downton Abbey.
The King’s personal chef, footman, and maids, along with food items, will be brought in for the royal visit. This perceived insult to the Downton staff simply must be rectified, so the plot is in motion. One doesn’t have to have binged on the series’ six seasons to follow all the crisscrossing stories; a year’s worth of soap opera shenanigans is packed into just over 2 hours. All the show’s romance, intrigue, and social one-upmanship remain intact. Stories are rapidly introduced; we eagerly await each resolution. The dialogue is efficient. No one subplot is burdened with too many distracting details. Character motivations are revealed via concise exchanges: a tilt of the head or a glance will often suffice. The one-liners are sharp as ever. Everything is kept in motion by Michael Engler, who directed three episodes as well as the 2015 Christmas finale, and by writer/creator Julian Fellows’s smart script.
The year is 1927, and an era of liberation is bumping up against long-held traditions of British upper-class life. But some things, like the Empire, are forever — a visit from royalty is a visit from Royalty. With 57 episodes under their belts, these actors have shaped their characters into brilliant archetypes. Hugh Bonneville is Robert Crawley, the patient and dignified Earl of Grantham. Elizabeth McGovern is his American wife Cora, a model of restraint and reason. Interestingly, the women serve as agents of change. There was a similar dynamic on the series Mad Men: women moved life forward because, unlike the men, they were less at odds with each other. Males are locked into their roles as husbands and competitive breadwinners.
At Downton Abbey, the women speak openly about their discontent, not so much with their lot in life as with the constraints of being a woman at that time. The eldest daughter, Lady Mary Crawley, played by Michelle Dockery, is the heart and future of Downton. Laura Carmichael as Edith Pelham (née Crawley), Marchioness of Hexham, has long struggled to be an independent woman and has what might be considered a modern marriage. Lesley Nicol as head chef Mrs. Patmore, and Sophie McShera, as her assistant Daisy, win us over with their down-to-earth opinions on life, love, and politics. Joanne Frogatt as Anna Bates, the lady’s maid to Mary Crawley, keeps her employer aloft, often by soothing her fears. Her relationship with Mr. Bates, played by Brendan Coyle, was one of the highlights in the series. His no-nonsense character, softened by his gentleness toward his wife, made the character an unlikely heartthrob. At the center of the matriarchy is the estimable Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, who also worked with Julian Fellowes on the film Gosford Park, predecessor of Downton Abbey. She is the anchor of family tradition. Many of her lines come off as classics, polished to a perfect finish by an actress with decades of stage comedy under her belt. “I never argue; I explain,” declares the Dowager Countess.
The men are less comfortable with social change. Rob James-Collier is Thomas Barrow, footman and now head butler. He struggles with his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was a crime. Occasionally underhanded and self-serving, his pride is dealt another blow when retired and former head butler Carson is brought back into service. Jim Carter, as Mr. Carson, exemplifies the British class tradition, proper and dignified to a fault. The agent of transformation among the men is Crawley’s widowed son-in-law, Tom Branson, an Irish nationalist. Played by Allen Leech, he stands as the film’s moral and romantic center. As Violet Crawley says of Tom, “The one thing you will never understand about Tom is that he’s not a snob! He’s less interested in all that than anyone else under this roof!”
Why has the film and the series been so successful? We are given a romanticized vision of essential “Britishness,” a nostalgic version of the class system. Given the widening division between rich and poor in America, some here will no doubt find Downton Abbey distasteful. But, unlike our corporate rulers, oil barons and real estate moguls among them, the British society in the film is held in place by history and cultural traditions. Of course, given the power of money and colonialism, this vision of English innocuousness is pure escapism. (Perhaps unconscious support for Brexit?)
But contemporary life moves at light speed; change is constant. There is comfort to be found in gawking at a world in which social expectations (and places) are clearly defined. At its core, Downton Abbey stands for love, duty, and a common humanity. The film also gives viewers a chance to gawk at stunning costumes. (They are on display at Boston’s Castle at Park Plaza through September 29.) “We’ll never stop changing our clothes,” says Cora Grantham about the royal visit. The architecture and set design are equally impressive on the big screen. The camera, too, is an active participant. Downstairs, it is constantly in motion, an active presence amidst the kitchen staff. Upstairs, in the estate’s expansive rooms, the camera is more elegant and patient. Shots often sail in from high angles, which gives us ample time to survey the lush interiors. In the final scene, Fellows uses the occasion of the grand ball, particularly the swirling music of a full orchestra, as a way to bring all the characters together, their asides wrapping up sundry romances and conflicts. It is a clever device, but the profusion of dangling plot lines is conspicuous. An opportunity for a sequel is in the offing. Will the sun ever set on Downtown Abbey?
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.