Downton, Downton, Revolution
The beloved British stately home drama is back, and the timing couldn’t be worse.
The new Downton Abbey movie is a drug, a delight, a palliative for the pain of being, a balm for battered emotions, a cure for cynicism. Well, almost. After two hours mainlining Carson’s beetling eyebrows, the Dowager Countess’s caustic comebacks, Mr. Molesley’s quivering histrionics every time aristocracy enters his airspace, and Lady Mary’s phlegmatic disdain, I left the movie as elated as Edith after a single driving lesson. But on the 10-minute walk back to the office, as the serotonin buzz began to wear off, I started to think about the totality of what I’d just seen. To paraphrase Titus from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: What Tory nonsense is this?
In most cultural products, brute repetition tends to be a turnoff, but in Downton, it’s entirely what audiences sign up for. There’s some sorcery in this stupid drama and the way it numbs and entrances in equal measure by doing the same things over and over again. Lord Grantham will make horrible decisions governed by arrogance and insecurity; his family (and servants) will endeavor to fix them. Lady Edith will have some kind of emotional crisis. (Just a lone utterance of the name Marigold at this point is enough to provoke shuddering flashbacks.) Violet and Cousin Isobel will have a loving conflict that allows for maximal verbal riposte and minimal tension. Tom will remind everyone that he’s Irish and used to be a chauffeur. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même show.
The series—movie—stays the same, and yet the world around it rudely refuses to do so. Which leads me to this unfortunate thought: Has there ever been a worse time in British history for Downton to barge its way in with its betweeded elbows, kind hearts, and coronets? The memory of Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging on the green-leather benches of the House of Commons with the insouciant attitude of a pound-shop Bertie Wooster is still fresh in most people’s minds. The Eton-educated Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is presiding over arguably the most ineffectual, least democratic government in British history, which even his own cabinet members keep scuttling away from as the water lines rise. The establishment isn’t exactly shining in this specific blip on the timeline. And yet here Downton is, stuffed to the gills with good claret and Mrs. Patmore’s rissoles, ready to remind us that things worked better when everyone knew their place.
This is, the series’ creator, Julian Fellowes, would probably say, an unfair assessment of what Downton stands for. Over six seasons, the ITV drama (which aired on PBS in the United States) charted the changing fortunes of a British stately home and its residents. These included the members of the Crawley family, a genial, aristocratic clan cursed with three daughters, and their servants. Downton, Fellowes told The New York Times Magazine in 2011, was actually very egalitarian, in that it refused to portray the landed gentry as superior beings and the working classes as scurrilous wretches—or vice versa. “We treat the characters of the servants and the family exactly the same,” Fellowes said. “Some of them are nice, some of them are not nice, some of them are funny, some of them are not, but there is no division between the servants and the family to mark that.” By the show’s final episode, I wrote in 2016, Downton even seemed to be quietly signaling that it had been on the side of the proletariat all along.
Democracy! Not anymore. The Downton Abbey movie sacrifices all the seeds of social mobility it planted in Season 6 for what amounts to an anesthetizing fever dream, a hearty reassurance from Fellowes that you can, in fact, go home again, and that home might have electricity now but the green-baize door is as felted and impermeable as it ever was. Mrs. Patmore’s B&B? Forgotten. Daisy leaving domestic service to help her father-in-law with his farm? Never happened. Even Mr. Carson’s retirement is rudely interrupted by his borderline-inappropriate infatuation with Lady Mary, who shows up to request his help (for which he naturally will not be compensated) when the king and queen of England decide to pay a visit to Downton.
What follows looks, on the surface, like a comedy of errors involving haughty interlopers, an absurd assassination story line, missing silver, and a royal marital crisis. (Hmm.) The initial thrill among the servants of being allowed the honor of waiting on the royal family is punctured when the king’s servants arrive. If Fellowes graciously allowed his Downton domestics a handful of human qualities such as intelligence and charm, he concedes none whatsoever to the royal staff, who cuckoo their way into the household and kick the disgruntled Downton loyalists out of their nests. “Excuse me, I am not a butler,” huffs the king’s butler. “I am the king’s page of the back stairs.” The revolution has been euphemized.
It says something about Downton Abbey that when a lifetime of suppressed radical fervor finally boils over on the show (movie), its target isn’t the blessed Crawley family, the heads of the Commonwealth, or even the system itself. It’s … some rival servants who seem to have developed airs above their station. And with that, we’re off to the races. “Mr. Bates and I, we want to defend Downton’s honor,” Anna says. Mrs. Hughes sighs and tells everyone that they’ll probably all end up in Botany Bay. Thomas, infuriated by being deposed by Carson once again, abandons ship and goes to a gay bar, and honestly we should all be so lucky. There are the usual anachronistic turns of phrase (a reference to the daily grind of the “9 to 5”) and subplots (Edith’s husband is very worried about his paternity leave, as a man, in 1927). People doubt Tom’s allegiances to England, again. Daisy develops a crush on a strapping young man who comes to fix the boiler. The strings start soaring every time the camera lands on a single brick or hammer beam of Highclere Castle.
You love to see it, probably. Because Downton as a product has always excelled at offering just the right amount of comfort. A little metaphorical rain falls on the Crawleys, as rain tends to do, but they’re largely insulated from the consequences of reality by the mythos of Downton itself, an institution that seems to mean something folkloric to everyone around them. Britain’s past greatness is continually being evoked as a totem of hope and glory. God, Lord Grantham sighs with relief, when the actual rain abates in time for a royal parade, “is a monarchist.”
Watching the movie, I sighed, I laughed, I shook my fists, I made notes that had far too many exclamation marks, such as “Scandal! A maid at the ball!!!!” and “OMG Tom would never!!” I, too, got swept up in this Disney-movie fantasia of benevolent, gracious aristocrats and their plucky servants all working together to … serve dinner to the king. Downton does that to you—it makes you nostalgic for a Britain that you’ve never personally seen or felt, but that you’ve always been assured is up there, just a few layers of hierarchy and Debrett’s listings above you. It makes Britain Great Britain again. It promises that you, too, can take back control of the national manor, the draughty and decrepit castle. “One hundred years from now, Downton will still be standing, and the Crawleys will still be here,” Lord Grantham says in the final scenes of the movie. “And that is a promise.” How absolutely right he was.