I haven’t seen a single episode of the “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!
Spoiler: I concluded that this movie is unlikely to please anyone who isn’t already enamored of the life of the fictional historical — by this point, the 1920s — English country manor.
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 delusions of visiting the early-20th-century English countryside involve being collected at the station by a dashing fellow driving a red 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 eveningwear 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 Downton Abbey 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 with improbable benign generosity by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville: Paddington 2, Breathe), is a hotbed of… niceness. Of calm. Of definitely nothing like class-based resentment, heaven forfend. Oh, absolutely, Maggie Smith (Sherlock Gnomes, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) 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 all the other below-stairs folk 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 — quietly, passive-aggressively, in the way you’d imagine a centuries-old subservient underclass would be. This character is just about as close as this movie comes to a villain… and this character is visiting from elsewhere, natch; don’t worry, it’s nobody fans of the show are already in love with! The other major miscreant, also an outsider, 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: A Street Cat Named Bob), clever and resourceful personal maid to Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery: Self/less, Non-Stop), one of the earl’s daughters? Or perhaps as efficient and dedicated Mr. Carson (Jim Carter: Alice in Wonderland, Creation), the erstwhile head butler who comes out of retirement at this particular moment of need? Seems doubtful. Is this instead the brand of working-schmoe daydream that is so easy to indulge in, that we proles are a mere stroke of luck away from a life of comfort and riches? You’d think it would be slightly less plausible, even as fantasy, for anyone to conceive of suddenly being part of a family not only impossibly wealthy but also of centuries-deep aristocratic heritage, but, in fact, this Downton movie does feature more than one daydreamy entrée into such a life. They are just as implausible as any of us paycheck-to-paycheck, gig-economy laborers hitting the lottery. And at this point, such fantasies feel more cruel than distracting, but obviously that’s just me.
There’s a more deeply reactionary fantasy at work here, 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: The Devil’s Own) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James: Megan Leavey, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), 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: Cinderella) going to abandon her butler fiancé (Michael Fox: Dunkirk) for the handsome new plumber (James Cartwright)? Whom will childless Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton: Finding Your Feet, Maleficent), 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.
*‘Gosford Park’ is also written by Julian Fellowes, creator of ‘Downton Abbey’ and screenwriter here. He obviously recognized which sort of fantasy was more profitable.