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A House Divided: An Advance Review of Masterpiece's Extraordinary Downton Abbey

“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.” - Ambrose Bierce

A house might be a home, but it can also serve as an apt metaphor for an entire country. Numerous writers have offered portraits of the changing face of their nation in such condition-of-England novels as Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," and Elizabeth Gaskell's "Cranford" and "North and South."

In the case of Julian Fellowes' extraordinary period drama Downton Abbey, launching January 9th on PBS' Masterpiece Classic, the titular country estate, home to the well-heeled Crawley family, is in turmoil. Great houses such as these are both relics of bygone eras as well as living, breathing organisms of their own right, humming along as they employ a staff of hundreds.

Everyone--from the lord and lady to the humblest footman and scullery maid--has their function and their duty to maintain. That holdover mentality from Victoria's reign--everything in its place and in its place everything--is what keeps estates like these running. Just as the servants have their duties, so too do the family, maintaining the spirit of noblesse oblige that marked the many centuries of England's aristocratic rule.

Set in the period between the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I, Downton Abbey's first season--here presented as four episodes rather than the seven installments of this fall's UK run--offers a detailed representation of life both above and below stairs in the early 20th century, focusing on the lots of both the Crawley family and their servants.

Beginning just after the destruction of the unsinkable ship, Downton depicts the tragedy of the Titanic, keenly felt by the Crawleys as it claimed the lives of the two heirs next in line to inherit both the estate and the title of Earl of Grantham.

The current lord of the manor--that would be Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)--has three daughters, which sets up the central conflict of succession and inheritance, as the daughters cannot inherit Downton and Robert has no direct male heirs. Furthermore, the estate and the fortune that Robert's American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) brought into the marriage are all tied up in the entail. And the whole lot will, upon Robert's death, will be inherited by a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a middle-class solicitor from Manchester whom none of them know.

The fates of everyone at Downton Abbey rests squarely on the shoulders of a distant relation who doesn't want the responsibility thrust at him. What follows is a most remarkable series which took the UK by storm when it aired this fall.

The unfairness of the Crawleys' position is keenly felt as they attempt to fight the entail with tooth and nail. This is especially felt by Robert's mother, Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith), whose husband created the legal bind that they're in today. Cora's vast fortune cannot be separated from the estate, which means that the family will be ruined and lose their home should Matthew inherit. Their hope lies in a legal battle and in a matrimonial one: if their eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), should make an ideal match with a man of wealth, their fortunes could be reversed.

In an ideal world, Mary would marry Matthew and the estate and the fortune would stay in their immediate family. But Mary has no taste for the modern Matthew, who is brought to the estate with his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and set up at Crawley House. Their lives are immediately transformed as they must adapt to a life of wealth and privilege... and leisure. The two are given a staff, including a gentleman's valet, Molesley (Kevin Doyle), and told to settle in for the long haul. But Matthew isn't a gentleman: he's a middle class professional with a more modern way of seeing the world.

Matthew doesn't need a valet to dress him or pour him his tea, not can Isobel--a doctor's wife--simply sit idly. But their intrusion into life at Downton shatters the ordered and rigid way of doing things, testing the social structure of the village and the estate, even as they represent a very real threat to Downton Abbey. (Progress is always viewed with uncertainty and suspicion.)

Not everyone at Downton is stuck in the past. Youngest daughter Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) is a progressive firebrand, a politically motivated woman who strives for equality and change in everything that she does, seeing a housemaid as no better or worse than herself, a chauffeur as an equal, and the future as something malleable. (Middle daughter, Laura Carmichael's Lady Edith, is less interested in politics and more interesting in snaring a husband, overlooked by all as she is.)

The atmosphere downstairs is no less fraught with conflict. Butler Carson (Jim Carter), housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) attempt to keep their staffs in order, running a tight ship below stairs, but change is seeping into life downstairs as well. Housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) is secretly studying to be a secretary, wanting to leave a life of service forever; chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is a socialist; and then there's the arrival of valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), an acquaintance of Lord Grantham himself, who fought alongside him in the Boer War and was injured.

His arrival, echoing that of Matthew upstairs, sets in motion a series of intrigues, plots, and jealousies, as many take umbrage that this disabled man would be appointed as the lord's valet, rather than the First Footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who was angling for the job. Opportunistic Thomas and his partner in crime, sullen lady's maid Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), are dangerous and cunning; they see an opportunity to send Bates packing and set in motion a series of events that has disastrous consequences for everyone at Downton, even as the secretive Bates is drawn towards Head Housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt).

It's fitting that things cut both ways at Downton: just as the family's lives--their sins, sexual dalliances, and failures as well as their triumphs--consume those below-stairs, so to do the goings-on with the servants spill over onto the family; each half is part of a greater whole, mirror-images of each other. (This upstairs/downstairs focus is summed up in the title's logo, which depicts the reflection of the Abbey below it.) Throw a spanner in the works of either, and you'll see the entire machine start to break down.

I don't want to spoil too much of the plot (there are some gasp-inducing plot twists ahead), because is really is one of the most exceptional and original period dramas ever to grace the small screen. Petty crimes mingle with great transgressions, romances flare up as do bitter rivalries, love and betrayal walk through these halls together, secrets and scandals bubble up. What follows is engaging, surprising, and intoxicating as well as beautifully crafted. Special attention must go to directors Brian Percival, Ben Bolt, Brian Kelly, the production team and designers, and the phenomenal cast.

Downton Abbey is not your standard costume drama. For one, it's not an adaptation of a period novel, which might explain the modern viewpoint despite the period settings. While the action might be unfolding circa 1912-1914, Downton Abbey is a modern creation concerned with modern mores and perspectives. As the year moves on for the Crawleys and their servants, the threat of doom and war hangs over the proceedings as the viewer knows just what the next chapter of life in England holds for these men and women.

Can Downton Abbey be saved? And should it? Has the era of the aristocrats come to and end? Just who should rightfully inherit the estate--and by dint England itself--its rule? Are the old ways or the new modernity necessarily better than one another?

Under the pen of the great Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), life at Downton Abbey springs to life with astonishing vivacity and depth, as he depicts in precise detail the lives of the aristocrats and the servants with equal weight. Each member of the sprawling cast gets their own storyline, their own burden to bear, their own moments of joy and grief.

Ultimately, Fellowes' Downton Abbey is transcendent television, offering both a creatively accomplished portrait of life at the turn of the last century and a timeless human drama. Once you fall under this series' rich and intoxicating spell, it is impossible to leave. Thank the Queen there's another season on tap.

Downton Abbey begins January 9th at 9 pm ET/PT on PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Check your local listings for details.


Jo Leigh said…
..."here presented as four episodes rather than the seven installments of this fall's UK run..."

Edited? The complete first season?

It sounds marvelous, but if it's not the full story, I'll pass on the PBS viewing.
Jace Lacob said…
Jo Leigh,

It is the complete first season, just reconfigured into four longer installments rather than seven shorter ones. Same, complete story, just broken up differently.
abigail said…
yes, this was really popular, and rightly so - i recommend watching.
Someonewhosawitandknows said…
Nope - it is cut, not complete. Total running time is indeed shorter. Check out the DVD - there is so much going on that I fear for the reputation of this one over in the States.
Bella Spruce said…
I can't wait for this! (Especially after reading your wonderful review.) Julian Fellowes is a brilliant writer and the cast in superb as well. Should be great!
Julie said…
I saw the production in its entirety and it's outstanding. But PBS edits everything they air and I can pretty much guarantee that there will be cuts. They did it with Emma last year, and with Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion and Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey etc., etc., etc. before that. North Americans are getting the short end of the stick and PBS doesn't seem to care.
MasterpieceFan said…
All this negativity compels me to respond. Even with the cuts PBS is likely to make to slightly shorten the broadcast, Downton Abbey is sure to be better than anything else airing on TV in the US during that time slot! Without PBS dollars, this series probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground. I'm going to show my support by watching it along with everyone else that is seeing it for the first time.

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