Confession: I’m shamelessly addicted to stories of the English aristocracy in the glory days. I’ve read and watched everything by or about the Mitford sisters, and could go on Mastermind or Hard Quiz with a special subject in Brideshead Revisited, I reckon. (Hey, that’s a thought…)
I was a devotee of Upstairs Downstairs, and rejoiced when Downton Abbey came along. But here’s the thing. I lost interest in TV Downton towards the end because writer/creator Julian Fellowes seemed to have abandoned the central dramatic theme, namely master/servant class distinctions. The same problem bedevils the movie. Of that more later.
Despite my diminished interest I think I can safely say Downton Abbey the movie picks up where the TV series left off. Upstairs, the Earl of Grantham and his Countess are still happily married, Lady Edith has married the Marquess of Hexham who has legitimized her daughter Marigold by her dead newspaperman lover; Lady Mary is married to dashing Henry Talbot and they have a daughter of their own – Caroline – to raise alongside her son George by Matthew Crawley who inherited the estate early on and married Mary but died in a car crash; and the Earl’s mother the Dowager Duchess is still alive and as sharp-tongued as ever. She trades barbs with Isobel Crawley, the late Matthew’s mother and George’s grandmother.
Phew. Are you keeping up?
Downstairs, Carson the butler has retired, Bates and Anna are married and have a child, Daisy is engaged to new footman Andy, Mrs Patmore still rules the kitchen and the once-scheming Mrs Baxter has become nice and moreover has taken an unlikely fancy to the bumbling Mr Molesworth.
Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who sired a child by the Grantham’s youngest daughter Lady Sybil who died in childbirth, has apparently abandoned his Fenian sympathies and joined the ruling class to the extent that he now sits with the family at dinner while his daughter is raised in their nursery.
There are new characters: Lady Maud Bagshaw, cousin and arch-enemy of Lady Grantham, and her maid/companion Lucy of whom she’s mysteriously overfond. Maud and Lucy are there to provide a) in the case of Lucy a new love interest for widower Tom and b) together a threat or possibly a happy financial future for Downton. But I’ve said too much.
The plot revolves around the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Downton Abbey, which gives plenty of scope for the splendid cinematic visuals we’ve come to expect from this sort of thing: luncheons, high teas, dinners, a ball, a royal parade. The royal visit gives rise to the central plot drama, the turf war between the Grantham servants and the royal servants; but there are others: an assassination attempt, the theft of family valuables, the non-arrival of a ball gown, the sabotaging of the plumbing, a looming upstairs pregnancy, a gay romance that threatens downstairs disgrace, and the awful possibility that Lady Maud might go rogue with her will.
One problem with the storytelling here is that the dramas are dealt with too perfunctorily. They should be strung out over the course of the story, instead of being picked off one by one in swift succession. Narrative opportunities are wasted: there is for instance an interesting detour into the life of the Princess Royal – the King’s eldest daughter – unhappily married to Lord Harewood and a previously unrevealed neighbor of the Granthams. Post-movie googling revealed the true story potential of this sub-plot, but Fellowes doesn’t make anything of it, just as nothing comes of Mrs Baxter’s doe-eyed declaration to Mr Molesworth . Perhaps he has a sequel in mind.
A more serious problem is the class conflict theme, or rather the lack of it. For a start, Fellowes has essentially made up the notion that the upper classes of the time had an interest in the lives of their servants. But read the books and memoirs of aristocrats like Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and the Mitford sisters: the servants never figure in them. Except, occasionally, the nannies, from whom as children these toffs probably got more love and affection than they did from their aristocratic parents, who famously farmed out the messy business of raising babies and small children in accordance with the old joke ‘bring him back when he can call me Sir’.
Even allowing for the Earl’s liberal attitudes and those of his American wife, there should be a lot more angst along the class boundaries than we have here. Grantham may well have taken on the raising of his granddaughter, but surely he would have paid Tom off to keep out of sight, if for no other reason than that the servants would baulk at having to wait on a lowly chauffeur. Which they did, furiously, in an earlier episode as I recall.
Watching this movie I couldn’t help thinking about the first, 1970s version of Upstairs Downstairs. In the very first episode we see Rose and the under-parlourmaid rising from their shared single bed in the freezing cold and dark of a winter morning to light fires to warm the house so their employers don’t have to endure the same discomfort when they get up. It was a more realistic depiction of the social realities of a time when the upper classes were indifferent at best and uncaring at worst about the hardships and miseries endured by the lower classes.
True, in that series we did see slow social change as Rose for instance becomes a suffragette and more bolshy about her working conditions. Fellowes tackles the same historical big picture but his glasses are far too rose-coloured and his characters are far too nice.
I could say that Downton Abbey the movie is entertaining in the way that any fairytale romance is, but most fairytales are darker than this.