Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey

Few contemporary writers understand the foibles of the British upper class as well as Julian Fellowes. In fact, the Academy Award winning screenwriter of Gosford Park recently joined their ranks, having been named a Conservative peer in the House of Lords. Fellowes brought his keen understanding of social dynamics and biting humor to television, creating and writing most of the first season of Downton Abbey (promo here). A breakout hit across the pond, the thoroughly engaging Edwardian period drama debuts on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic this Sunday night.

Downton Abbey is a hulking behemoth of a mansion, surrounded by considerable grounds and out-buildings. The upkeep is enormous which is why Downton was entailed, a common practice amongst the landed gentry, prohibiting the sale of any part of the estate, while mandating the entire kit and caboodle pass entirely to the lord’s immediate male heir. The Earl of Grantham has had the Devil’s own time with the entail. When nearly bankrupted by Downton’s maintenance, Grantham went to New York to find himself an heiress. As luck would have it, they also fell in love, but their union has only produced daughters.

Mary, the eldest, has dutifully agreed to marry her cousin, the heir to Downton, but the first episode opens with bad news. The Titanic has sunk, taking the Grantham heirs down with it. So begins the “great problem” of Downton.

Of course, there is an heir out there somewhere. Disappointingly, Matthew Crawley is hardly a proper gentle of leisure. In fact, he is a solicitor with a dreary middle class work ethic. He and Mary instantly clash, dashing her parents’ hopes of any potential marriage between them. However, as Downton progresses, their cold war melts into a sort of Tracy-Hepburn attraction. It might sound somewhat predictable, but like everything in Downton it is smartly executed.

In the tradition of Upstairs Downstairs, viewers spend equal time with the servants of the Abbey, including Grantham’s mysterious new valet, John Bates, the Earl’s former military comrade. Overseeing it all is the butler, Mr. Carson, who naturally has his own secret past. Yet, we also learn he has a special relationship with Lady Mary. Indeed, it is those intriguing moments where upstairs and downstairs meet that really sing in Downton.

Whenever Downton starts to drag, Fellowes wisely plays his ace trump card: Dame Maggie Smith as Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess. Smith was born to play such parts, portraying the Countess with an acid tongue and a regal “we are not amused” air. Often laugh-out-loud funny, her scenes absolutely crackle with wit and verve.

While no one can touch a figure of Smith’s stature, the rest of Downton’s ensemble is also quite accomplished. Hugh Bonneville (primarily known for British television roles) balances Lord Grantham’s pompousness and stately maturity rather well. Brendan Coyle supplies a strong rooting interest downstairs as Bates. Perhaps most surprisingly, Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery bicker and banter quite entertainingly, while making the most of their graver moments.

Though there is no closure at the end of episode four, Fellowes still ends it at a perfect place, wholly in keeping with Downton’s themes of change threatening social stability. ITV has already renewed it in the UK, which is good news. Despite the symmetry of his conclusion, Fellowes totally leaves us hanging. Do not be deterred by that though. Combining the best of both high period pieces and gold old fashioned melodrama, Downton is thoroughly satisfying television. A highlight of the Laura Linney era of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic (who is about as classy a host as one could find these days, with all the right theater credentials for the gig), Downton Abbey premieres this coming Sunday (1/9) continuing the next three weeks (through 1/30).