PBS // 2011 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 11th, 2011
A battle between years of British aristocracy and the tides of social upheaval.
Though Great Britain churns out a wide variety of sweeping period dramas for television each year, Downton Abbey managed to make a particularly large impression on the viewing public. Written and created by the actor/novelist/screenwriter/director Julian Fellowes (recently selected as a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords), the series generated the highest ratings of any British costume drama since the great Brideshead Revisited.
Our story concerns the fate of the legendary Downton Abbey estate, which is currently in the capable hands of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Notting Hill). The two heirs to the estate pass away (they were passengers on the Titanic), leaving the Earl to determine who is next in line. While Robert's wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Once Upon a Time in America) and mother Violet (Maggie Smith, Nanny McPhee Returns) feel that Robert and Cora's oldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery, Cranford) has a right to inherit the family fortune, but Robert feels he has a legal obligation to a distant cousin named Matthew (Dan Stevens, Hilde).
As the Crawley family debates this serious matter, the servants of the household are facing some intriguing situations of their own. The arrival of a new valet named John Bates (Brendan Coyle, Tomorrow Never Dies) shakes things up a bit, as Bates' limp makes it a bit difficult for him to perform his duties. Carson the butler (Jim Carter, The Golden Compass) feels that having Bates around may damage the dignity of Downton Abbey, but Bates is an old war buddy of Robert and thus is regarded as something of a charity project. Meanwhile, some younger servants yearn for a real careers outside of Downton, assorted members of the staff fall in and out of love and a particularly nasty footman named Thomas (Rob James-Collier, Coronation Street) plots to have Bates fired from his position.
Though Downton Abbey is the rare period miniseries that isn't based on historical figures or a famous piece of literature, there's nonetheless a feeling of familiarity about the whole affair. If someone were to ask me to describe it in one sentence, I'd probably say that it's, "A blend of Pride and Prejudice and Little Women filtered through the structure and sensibilities of Gosford Park and Upstairs, Downstairs." Though the series offers quite a few moments which feel derivative of those works, it also manages to capture much of what makes those efforts so enjoyable. Those inclined to enjoy this sort of thing will unquestionably find Downton Abbey an immensely pleasurable experience.
Fellowes is juggling an enormous cast of characters in this thing -- I can think of at least twenty people that qualify as principle players, along with a massive amount of smaller characters we're expected to remember. Fortunately, Fellowes manages to provide almost all members of the cast with distinctive characterizations that help us remember who is who. I was having a little trouble keeping up with all the names in the very beginning, but by the end of the first part (the series is presented in seven parts) I had a pretty solid grasp on who everyone was and what role they were playing in the story.
And what a grand story it is, too: a sprawling soap opera with multi-layered tales of romance and treachery set within an in-depth examination of England's class structure set within an in-depth examination of the nation's collective identity crisis during the early part of the 20th Century. Indeed. While there are just a couple of moments that seem a little clumsy (the heirs dying on the Titanic in particular comes across as an awkward way of inserting historical events of the times into the story), for the most part Fellowes manages to pull off his mighty task with breathtaking elegance.
The performances certainly help, as the cast is excellent across the board. In a series loaded with fine acting, my favorite turn comes from Jim Carter as the reserved Mr. Carson. As the butler, he quietly keeps a watchful eye on the lives of both the servants and his employers. Carter's superb sense of timing and his gift for understatement serve him very well in the part. Carson is ever cautious about maintaining dignity; watching him attempt to keep it intact is one of the high points of the series. Hugh Bonneville brings likable warmth to a character that might have very easily been a source of irritation, while Dame Maggie Smith offers her seemingly conventional role as the cantankerous Countess a surprising amount of tenderness.
While Downton Abbey is by all means a worthwhile experience, I feel compelled to report that there are a couple of particularly troubling issues. First, one gets the distinct impression that Fellowes is going a bit far in terms of glorifying England's "good old days." While the series hints at the severe problems caused by the class structure of the era, for the most part it seems to embrace the idea that a world where everyone knows their place is a positive one. Secondly, I'm not a big fan of the ceaselessly villainous Thomas, whose nonstop conniving happens so frequently that it ceases to be convincing after a while. That Thomas is a homosexual would be a side note of little importance in most circumstances (after all, there are heroes and villains of every sort), but the fact that the only other homosexual character depicted behaves in similarly repulsive ways suggests that the series may be buying into the archaic idea that homosexuals are immoral deviants (a view expressed by some of the other characters in the series). These sizable bumps in the road prevent the series from being as exhilarating as it might have.
The DVD transfer is quite solid, thanks in part to the fact that the seven parts are spread across three discs rather than two (everything could have fit on two discs if the producers had so desired). The level of detail is sturdy and depth is impressive, though there are a couple of moments that seem a bit soft. Audio is excellent throughout, with a fervently brooding score by John Lunn coming through with particular vigor. Supplements are limited to two featurettes: "Downton Abbey: The Making Of" and "Downton Abbey: A House in History."
Note: There's no indication on the packaging that Downton Abbey is "Series One" or intended as anything other than a self-contained piece. As a result, I was rather surprised with the way the series concluded. Many plot threads are left hanging and the final moment is something of a cliffhanger. Fortunately, it seems that a sequel to Downton Abbey is in the works and will be released sometime in late 2011. I'm looking forward to it.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated