Downton Abbey’s Insular World of Genteel Twits Is Only for the Fans

Sep 25, 2019 at 6:00 am
Lady Mary and Henry Talbot (Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode) dance as only the comfortable can.
Lady Mary and Henry Talbot (Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode) dance as only the comfortable can. JAAP BUITENDIJK/ © 2019 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

I haven't seen a single episode of the (check notes) "worldwide phenomenon" (per a press release) that is Downton Abbey, so I approached this big-screen installment as I always do when I am among the uninitiated: to determine if there is a reason to see this movie for people who don't think it's for them. Sometimes there is!

But I also embraced a spirit of anthropological exploration. I thought perhaps I might discover just what is it that draws so many viewers to the costume-drama TV series. Why has it garnered so much acclaim and so many awards (Emmys, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, etc.)?

I mean, sure, it's a kind of fantasy — of a lost world of fabulous clothes and posh accents, of a time when people dressed for dinner and, I dunno, drew baths and stuff. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Folks, I literally moved to London from New York solely to indulge my Anglophilia. So I get it.

But — she said as she found herself ever so slightly appalled at what she had just seen on the big screen — just what kind of fantasy is this? My daydreams of visiting the early twentieth-century English countryside involve being collected at the station by a dashing fellow in a Lagonda and then solving an unexpected murder during a weekend house party at a crumbling yet still stately manor. You know, an Albert Campion at Gosford Park sort of thing, amazing nosh and gorgeous evening wear but also, c'mon, seething intrigue and simmering resentment across class lines leading to genteel violence. As is inevitable.

Or so you would think. But this is a very different brand of fantasy, and it's way more unpleasant than murder.

The estate of Downton Abbey, sprawling across Yorkshire and ruled over by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), is a hotbed of ... niceness. Of calm. Of definitely nothing like class-based resentment, heaven forfend. Oh, absolutely, Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, deploys an entertainingly wicked tongue in pursuit of protecting her privilege, but how is it possible that all the servants are so happy? Not only do the cooks and maids and footmen and so on Know Their Place, they positively revel in servitude. One character literally makes a foolish spectacle of himself, so giddy is he at the prospect of waiting on his "betters." This is played for charmed laughs: Of course he's delighted to serve his superiors, who wouldn't be? His endearing faux pas is merely in being so effusive instead of maintaining a correct British decorum. (There's a servant character here who is bitter in the way you'd imagine a centuries-old subservient underclass would all be bitter. This character is just about as close as this movie comes to a villain. Another miscreant is someone else who fails to adhere to the prescribed class and power structure.)

When devotees of Downton Abbey insert themselves into this saga, are they imagining themselves as Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), clever and resourceful personal maid to Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), one of the Earl's daughters? Or perhaps as efficient and dedicated Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the erstwhile head butler who comes out of retirement at this particular moment of need? Seems unlikely. No, the fantasy here is a very reactionary one, a hankering for a world in which no one questions the status quo, where wealth and privilege are deserved and proper: The plot revolves around a visit to Downton Abbey from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James), and the mild uproar the preparations for this throw the household into. Maybe there's some sort of satisfaction to be had in seeing that even the Crawleys can be ordered around by their betters? Except the Crawleys are mostly pretty unfussed by it all.

Even the minor bits of intrigue resolve themselves in ways that could not be more conservative, more contentedly uncomplaining: Oh no, is cook Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera) going to abandon her butler fiancé (Michael Fox) for the handsome new plumber (James Cartwright)? Whom will childless Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), cousin to the dowager countess, leave her fortune to? Never fear: There are no revolutions in the offing at Downton Abbey. And just when a good one to fantasize about would be very welcome indeed. 0x006E