PBS // 2010 // 900 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 4th, 2012
Welcome to Downton Abbey.
Very few people alive today remember the sinking of the Titanic back in 1912, but there are many people alive who remember someone who remembered that fateful day. That puts the whole World War I era in a strange place: it's close enough to feel real, but far enough away that we've lost immediate access to it. I think that makes it an object of fascination. We can understand the people who were alive then, while recognizing the tremendous changes that were just on their horizon, making them quite different from us in a whole host of ways. To a large extent, I think that's the fascination with Downton Abbey, the hit BBC show that has become something of a sensation in Britain and America. By taking a number of our well-worn dramatic stories (love, family, war) and transporting them back to the nineteen-teens, the show appeals to fans of drama, history, and opulence. Though they've been given a fine treatment on DVD as separate seasons, the show's first two series here receive a handsome Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two (Limited Edition) release in advance of the North American appearance of Season Three. Though it's not worth a double dip for those who already own the individual releases, this set is a great way to lose a day or two in the world of Downton Abbey.
Though the show opens just after the sinking of the Titanic, it really begins in the past, when Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Notting Hill) married Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Once Upon a Time in America), a rich American woman. He did so because his family owns Downton Abbey, one of the great houses of England, but had little money to maintain it. Marrying Cora secured a future for his family home. The pair have a trio of daughters, all of marriageable age, and the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic hits home because the suitor of their eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery, Hanna), went down with the ship. This is doubly problematic because he was also Mary's second cousin, and because he was male, also heir to Downton Abbey. With his death, a distant cousin -- a lawyer in London -- becomes the heir. The family (along with their servants) must deal with the fallout of this fateful day and try to navigate their own futures and the future of Downton Abbey.
I know that Downton Abbey is a well-made show because I just covered one tenth of one percent of the story in that previous paragraph and it sounds a thousand times more complicated than the show made it seem. Though Downton Abbey has many things going for it, the first one might just be its story and its storytelling. It keeps the lives of Lord and Lady Grantham in view, along with their daughters, their daughters' numerous suitors, the servants, and the political situations (including Irish Rebellion and World War I) all in sixteen episodes. By taking a rather freeform approach to time -- the elapsed moments between two cuts can be anywhere from 10 seconds to 10 months -- Downton Abbey captures the lives around the house with grace and charm that keeps several love stories in the air at all times without showing a hint of strain.
This story, though, is built on characters, and Downton Abbey is full of them. From the proud Lord Grantham to the sniveling Thomas, we see across a whole range of class and attitude. The ladies also get their spectrum as well, from the Dowager Countess to the scullery maid. Each is a well-drawn character who feels both familiar and yet realistic. Much of that credit should go to a standout cast. There's not a single ounce of fat to be trimmed from the performers seen here. Maggie Smith is perhaps my favorite as the Dowager Countess, but everyone from Jim Carter to Michelle Dockery run a very close second. Even those with little interest in the history of England or costume dramas could find something to love in the acting on display.
As a costume drama, Downton Abbey also succeeds handily. It appears that no expense was spared in bring the world of the 1910s alive in vivid color. The house that stands in for the fictional Downton Abbey is sumptuous, and the characters are all garbed in period-accurate clothing (some of it original rather than re-created, we learn in the extras). The surrounding Yorkshire countryside is film beautifully, and everything from early cars to early telephones crop up in the show's art direction.
Perhaps the only thing at all disappointing about Downton Abbey is this DVD release. It's being sold as a limited edition of the first two seasons, and each season gets its own single-width cased housed in a handsome black-and-gold cardboard sleeve. The only problem is that these are the same DVDs previously available to fans of the show. That means the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are still gorgeous (though a little bit rougher on the first season when compared to the second), with strong detail, good black levels, and no series artefacting problems. Also, the same 2.0 stereo mixes do a fine job keep the dialogue and the show's beautiful score well-balanced, with subtitles to boot. The same extras, even, which include a handful of featurettes across both seasons looking at everything from the costumes to the impact of World War I. However, there's nothing new here to tempt fans who already own those previous seasons -- not even a preview of the third season (which started airing in England as this set came out in America) to tide fans over or tempt a double dip.
Downton Abbey is a rare show that has everything working for it: the story is compelling, the actors uniformly excellent, the production sumptuous, and the DVD release solid. Though there's nothing about this release to tempt a double dip (unless you absolutely love the gold and black motif of the cardboard sleeve), this is a great way to check out the show for those who keep hearing about Downton Abbey, but haven't yet taken the plunge.
Downton Abbey is only guilty of making fans wait too long between
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 900 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated