Thursday, February 2, 2012

Downton Abbey

Jim Carter as the butler leads the servant staff (L), while
Hugh Bonneville as the Earl heads the family (R)

Brian Percival and Brian Kelly, directed four episodes each; several others directed two episodes.

Season One: 2010 (10*)
Golden Globe and Emmy Awards, best tv mini-series or movie
During the reign of England’s King Edward, estates of the wealthy aristocrats grew to their ultimate in wealth and power. By the first decade of the 20th century, there were 100 estates that owned over half the land in England. Their wealth came from owning huge amounts of land, then collecting rents from all those who lived on, farmed, or hunted on their land. The patriarch of the estate was usually given the title of Duke, Earl, or Marquis, and the property was always passed on to eldest male heirs, and by law, never to women. If there was no male son, the nearest other male relative became the heir, often cousins.

However, as all things pass over time, this class structure was about to change forever. Cheaper shipping allowed the importation of less costly agricultural products from India and the Americas, and the great estates were in decline, along with the manors or castles of the aristocratic families. The upper class still tried to maintain their lifestyles for as long as possible, or at least the appearance of luxury, which required large staffs of servants. The head cook had her assistant and kitchen maids; the head housekeeper had a staff of housekeeping maids; while the butler was the overall head of the staff, and there were also valets, and the lowest of the male order inside the house, the footmen. Outside the manor were also the gamekeepers and wardens, garden staff, and stables of horses to maintain.

All this cost a lot of money, and without the income from the land, many aristocrats sought new wealth from America. The generally accepted practice was to get a wealthy American heiress, usually the daughter of industrialists or bankers, to marry a titled estate owner, and thus gain a title to provide some hitherto unavailable social status in America, while providing the money to keep the estate going.

This is the setting of the story of one such manor, called Downton Abbey, headed by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, in this work of fiction beginning in the year 1910, created and written by Julian Fellowes. Other works before have explored this system, notably the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited, which actually starts after the era is past but whose story is told as a flashback to a time decades before. Upstairs failed to involve me, I found it boring and passionless.

Brideshead, from the novel by Evelyn Waugh, easily hooked me, largely with it’s terrific cast, which made an international star out of lead actor Jeremy Irons, and included Laurence Olivier, who won an Emmy for his performance as the patriarch, and Clare Bloom as his estranged wife, as well as excellent supporting performances from Julian Glover and the two actors who played the children of Olivier, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick. This is a 'must-see' epic for fans of literature brought to the screen, and runs eleven hours overall.

Downton Abbey is worthy of all the praise and awards it’s receiving. Unlike the two previously mentioned mini-series, Downton is infused with a warmth unseen in previous stories. Fellowes has managed to capture the feel of Charles Dickens literature, with the wit and humor of Jane Austen. When the first telephone is being installed in the manor, the Dowager Countess (the granny of the family), brilliantly played by Oscar-winner Maggie Smith, remarks, “first electricity, now telephones; I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel”.

The story begins with the news of the sinking of the Titanic, and the loss of the hand-picked heirs of Downton, both cousins of the Earl, who has only three daughters and thus no rightful heir of his own. Next in line is a third cousin, who is presently a lawyer in a mid-level corporate legal firm in Manchester – hardly an aristocrat, and someone not especially thrilled at the prospect of changing his lifestyle.

Veteran actor Hugh Bonneville, with
96 titles to his credit, has the role of
a lifetime as the Earl, Robert Crawley

We are swept into the life of the manor in the first five minutes, by following servants awakening and rushing off to their stations with some excellent camerawork that follows people from in front in unbroken shots until the camera turns to follow a different person. From then on you should be hooked on the story.

We see the arrival in the beginning of the new valet, Mr. Bates (brilliant, understated performance by Brendan Coyle) a man crippled from the Boer War, but who has been placed in his new position for being a friend of the earl from the war days, thus bypassing those inside the house who wanted to move up in rank. We are also introduced to the new heir, who meets a different form of disdain, seen as an outsider by the more traditional aristocrats, yet welcome by the younger set, represented by the earl’s three daughters, each single, with the elder two (Mary and Edith) competing as the first across the marriage line. The youngest (Sybil) is more political than social, interested in women getting the vote and finding careers, and uninterested in the traditional woman’s role of wife and socialite.

You know as you watch the dates progress toward 1914 that a world war is coming, so that adds an element of tension to the entire story, which is light on action, but deep in psychological complexity and subtle currents of social change.

British drama doesn’t get any better than this, it’s the ultimate Masterpiece Theater production, expertly filmed and acted. The cast is led by Brendan Coyle as the valet, Mr. Bates. The earl, Robert Crawley is played by Hugh Bonneville, who has a dignified sense of justice. His wife is an American, Elizabeth McGovern (one of the weaker actors), married for her money, needed to keep the estate going. Her money must remain with the estate, else Downton Abbey will not be able to continue.

The eldest daughter Mary, is played by a stern, almost cold-hearted Michelle Dockery. Her conniving, backstabbing younger sister Edith is portrayed as an envious wretch by Laura Carmichael. The youngest daughter, my favorite character, is played by the stunning Jessica Browne Findlay, a former ballerina, and the character with the most spunk.

The Earl's daughters, Ladies Edith, Mary, and Sybil

However, the acting kudos are being stolen by the veteran Maggie Smith, as the traditional and snobbish Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley, who is given the lion’s share of great lines. Dan Stevens is passable as the selected heir-to-be, Matthew Crawley, who has trouble fitting into the role of an aristocrat, largely because he’s never been trained to be an elitist, and would rather fend for himself and fulfill some useful career. Veteran actor Jim Carter also shines as the resolute and dignified butler, Mr. Carson, who feels responsible for maintaining a professional staff that can perpetuate this way of life as perhaps Britains contribution to civilization for as long as possible.

The first season has everyone’s appetite whetted for season two, currently airing on PBS, but I wait for the dvd release so I can view the entire season in one sitting. Season one is seven episodes, just shy of seven hours and worth every minute.

This has won 13 awards to date out of 45 nominations, including six Emmys and a Golden Globe, with seven of those awards going to creator and author Julian Fellowes. This has an extremely high rating of 9.0 by just 11,000 fans at IMDB; if it were a film, it would be tied with The Godfather at #2 there, only bettered by Shawshank Redemption's rating of 9.1. It is now one of just 40 perfect 10's I've given on this blog.


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