Nearly everything about the acclaimed British TV show Downton Abbey is focused on higher ground. It’s about the upper crust (English aristocracy) of yore and their uppity ways. Most of the protagonists speak with a stiff upper lip. It’s also a showcase of the upheavals that happen in their seemingly ideal lives. Beautifully written, acted, and filmed, Downton Abbey arguably outshines every TV series about upper class people. Its only rival is The Crown.
Unlike The Crown, however, Downton Abbey also tells the story of the servants who help their employers live their lives with more expediency. Their employers are the Crawleys, the residents of the Abbey, the grand manor in a fictional town in England. What happens to the servants throughout the six-season run is just as compelling.
When Downton Abbey first aired a decade ago, nearly everyone on social media raved about it. I wasn’t one of them because I didn’t have access to cable TV. Also, in those pre-pandemic times, I chose to spend days on the beach over following any TV series. (Yes, even Game of Thrones.)
Thus I saw the film version of Downton Abbey before seeing the original. Not knowing the back story or history of this onscreen family, I was stepping on unfamiliar ground. But I couldn’t care less, because seeing a well-received period film is always a welcome respite from the Marvel epics we’ve been bombarded with. The less CGI a movie has, the better.
It was still easy to get involved in the contretemps. And it was easy to be captivated by them. With the exception of Maggie Smith and American actress Elizabeth McGovern, I wasn’t familiar with the cast. That was fine, as it was easier for me to be convinced that the actors were really the characters, and not movie stars acting in a period drama.
The film also felt more entertaining to watch than the films of the revered director James Ivory, who won acclaim for the similarly themed Howard’s End and Remains of the Day. Watching the works of Ivory is like looking at a painting. Like the painting, his film is a masterpiece. But you’re always at least four feet away; you never feel involved. His films, though very effective, carry a certain aloofness.
In contrast, Downton Abbey has a distinct charm that simply takes a viewer’s breath away. The storytelling is straightforward and never stoic. When it’s funny, it’s uproariously funny, and not merely delightfully amusing. When it gets romantic, it gives viewers that certain emotion that can make women swoon. Only a Tagalog word can perfectly describe that sensation: kilig.
Thankfully, Netflix started streaming all six seasons of the show, thus giving me another chance to dip my toe in this Downton universe. After the first episode, my original mission of just “getting a feel or taste of it” quickly turned into addiction.
The saga of Downton Abbey parallels epic stories from other countries, notably the American civil war epic, Gone with the Wind
The saga of Downton Abbey parallels epic stories from other countries, notably the American civil war epic, Gone with the Wind. The Abbey is the British equivalent of the cotton plantation Tara. Lady Mary Crawley (played by Michelle Dockery), eldest daughter of Man of the Abbey Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), is the British counterpart of the flirtatious southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. Both families, toiling on different sides of the Atlantic, are faced with fading traditions and cataclysms that have a profound effect on their lifestyles and their respective countries.
The fate of the Crawleys tends to be controlled by world events. The very first episode begins with news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It so happens that a distant cousin, heir to the Abbey, had gone down with the ship. Robert Crawley has three daughters. Unfortunately, women aren’t entitled to inherit the estate. That distant cousin was thus named heir, and it was arranged for him to be conveniently engaged to Lady Mary Crawley.
The Second World War dominates the second season. Other episodes tackle the Spanish flu pandemic, changing norms, and a more modern way of living. Adapting to changes proves to be difficult for many of the characters. Women’s skirts are getting shorter while the telephone, the wireless radio, and fast sports cars are deemed to be mere noisemakers rather than convenient amenities.
Robert Crawley also has to contend with weakening social barriers. Compared to his prejudiced peers, he is more tolerant. He does marry Cora, an American heiress (Elizabeth McGovern) with Jewish blood, and he marries her for her money. But when it involves his youngest daughter, who marries their chauffeur who happens to be Catholic and Irish, his tolerance is put to the test. Furthermore, there is pressure to sell the Abbey, as their way of life is getting too expensive and fast becoming extinct.
Because of the setting and time period, Downton Abbey plays in part like a Jane Austen story (three sisters in desperate search of a suitable spouse), with shades of D.H. Lawrence (the leading man is crippled in the war and rendered impotent) and Oscar Wilde (a gay servant serves as the Abbey’s resident bitch).
I wouldn’t say the show borrowed bits and pieces of stories from those authors. The similar situations were the very situations so many people in England had to cope with at that time. Such bits and pieces are expertly put together by the show’s brilliant writer Julian Fellowes, who created the show. (Shelag Stephensons and Tina Pepler are credited as co-writers.).
Scene for scene, Downton Abbey is exquisitely written. As spoken by the actors, the dialogue sounds like poetry because most of the characters in the show speak like they had studied under Professor Henry Higgins. They are always formal and well-mannered when conversing with each other. The butler is always addressed as Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and the widowed head housekeeper is always addressed as Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). The two have a Remains of the Day scene together, and their banter is often charming and endearing.
Confronted with the arrival of her son’s brassy American mother-in-law, Countess Violet Crawley politely mutters, ‘She reminds me of how honorable the English are’
As the dowager countess Violet Crawley (mother of Robert Crawley), Maggie Smith is given the bulk of the nasty and sarcastic lines. Confronted with the arrival of her son’s brassy American mother-in-law (Shirley Maclaine), she politely mutters, “She reminds me of how honorable the English are.”
Maggie Smith is a delight, but none of her co-stars are upstaged. Every character is perfectly cast, and none so more than Jim Carter, who plays the loyal butler. His deep commanding voice and large intimidating presence make him more like the earl of the Abbey. My other favorite character is Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Lady Mary’s mother in-law who likes to poke her nose into other people’s affairs and help them. She plays the perfect foil to Maggie Smith. Their scenes together are priceless.
With such a talented cast of thespians, I wondered how guest stars like Shirley Maclaine and Lily James would fare and fit in. But I guess they were chosen because their characters weren’t meant to fit in. Shirley Maclaine plays Shirley Maclaine (from a past life no doubt). She’s the painfully frank mother-in-law who finds all these antiquated upper-class British traditions so silly. The sparring scenes between the diva Maclaine and Dame Maggie Smith should resonate with Filipino viewers, if only because having insufferable in-laws is the one thing we have in common with old English aristocrats.
As the flighty flapper cousin, Lily James offers a refreshingly funny change of pace. She parties all night, has an affair with a much older married man, and then goes on to have a fling with a black jazz musician. Her presence marks the beginning of the modern era. Yet the girl James plays seems so innocent and amiable because she isn’t prejudiced.
Now, not every episode is a happy episode. Jaw-dropping tragedies leave Cora and Robert Crawley with only two daughters, and Lady Mary is suddenly widowed. A bride is left at the altar, while Crawley’s likable valet is accused of murdering his former wife. The show’s resident villains also manage to almost ruin the reputation of a few beloved characters. Whenever this happened, I’d stop watching the show for a week. So well written and acted are the protagonists, you get invested in them and you don’t want the situation to get worse.
The show does have its share of holes. In the second season, the great war is raging and the Abbey is converted into a convalescing hospital. Among the patients is a soldier who had suffered terrible burns on his face. He claims to be the Abbey’s actual heir who was believed to have been killed in the Titanic disaster. That plotline is never resolved, and the poor soldier is quickly checked out of the Abbey and never mentioned again. Perhaps at the last minute, the writers realized that this sub-sob story comes too perilously close to soap.
There’s also the question of why Violet Crawley isn’t living with her son’s family at the Abbey, which can accommodate dozens of guests. Was she that antagonistic towards her American daughter-in-law Cora? Or did Cora have her kicked out?
Yet as the show continues, we see the characters evolve. Villains become sympathetic, while opponents become the best of friends. Young shrinking violets grow to be as crusty as the old countess Violet. And finally, Robert Crawley and his once intractable mother slowly but surely learn to acquiesce to the 1920s version of the new normal.
It’s no wonder then that the film version lacked any major conflict as compared to the series. But having binged on the TV show, I’m glad the turmoil in the film was minimal. The Crawleys and their servants have suffered enough. So we now look forward to seeing them live happily ever after in the next Downton Abbey movie, set to be released next year.