The Beautiful, Static Fantasy World of Downton Abbey

The Beautiful, Static Fantasy World of Downton Abbey

In the Downton Abbey movie, Lady Mary’s stalwart maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) assembles the house’s servants in the wine cellar for a covert meeting about their working conditions. I felt a familiar thrill watching Anna and the others slip away quietly to discuss what was wrong and what they were going to do about it, because in the past few years—the years Downton has been off the air, mostly—I have participated in many of these meetings, as a member of this company’s chapter of the Writer’s Guild of America East. It was recognizably an organizing meeting, the kind of meeting that drove the plot of North and South, a Masterpiece Theatre cult classic that never received the wide attention of Downton. (North and South also featured Brendan Coyle, the same actor who plays the valet Mr. Bates as Nicholas Higgins, a fiery labor organizer in an unforgiving Northern English mill town).

Spoilers ahead.

But in this scene, Anna, her husband, and the others weren’t organizing to press for better wages or to protest poor conditions. Instead, the servants gather to defend the honor of the house, under attack from the troop of servants who arrive in preparation for a visit from King George V and Queen Mary, the story that drives the film’s plot. The servants from the royal household believe the Downton servants unequal to the task of hosting the king and queen. So the Downton servants hatch a plot to disrupt the royal servants, to prove their skills at cooking, dinner service, and all the other staging demanded by the pageantry of the monarchy.

In the enclosed world of Downton Abbey, it’s the royal servants who are the problem, not royalty itself and certainly not aristocracy, which exists in loving symbiosis with the servant class in their beautiful mutual home, despite the fact that the servants are very much expected to use the back door. Nostalgia for this world is necessarily nostalgia for masters and servants.

Nostalgia for this world is necessarily nostalgia for masters and servants.

I found the first season of Downton delightful and completely propulsive, with some new soapy twist every 15 minutes. The theme song swept you along like a river, into a world of simultaneous bustle, leisure, and endless drama. The universe is satisfyingly limiting from a narrative perspective, like Star Trek or another episodic space opera. But as someone who has watched more than her fair share of costume dramas, I never quite understood what made this the breakout Masterpiece show, spawning publishing trends, tie-in merchandise, and a traveling exhibition that crisscrossed the globe. The show has been off the air in America since 2016, and yet the fandom remained committed enough to warrant a film.

Like the show, the movie is beautiful, because Highclere Castle, the stately home that serves as Downton, is beautiful. It’s the ultimate in luxury porn—rich rugs and elegant dinners and formal livery and stunning evening gowns and glittering jewelry and starched white shirts against perfect black tuxedo jackets. The structure of the royal visit provides it all: shots of a grand imperial military parade, a troop-inspection on the green, fighting-spirit setup of chairs in the pouring rain, a luncheon, a dinner, a ball.

But the plot boils down to the same plot that Downton has always had: a fight for stasis and the preservation of “a way of life,” as much as possible. Sure, the whole show has been about changing times—but ultimately, the story has been one of the Crawley family’s adaptation to those times in such a way that they retain and maintain the estate as a discrete entity. Because it’s such a closed universe, you forget at whose expense that way of life is preserved. I can’t watch Downton without comparing it unfavorably to another British costume drama: Call the Midwife. While Call the Midwife is ultimately soft-focus in depicting the harshness of life in London’s working class, postwar Docklands—its vibe has always reminded me slightly of evangelical popular culture, with its firm emphasis on faith and community—it is resolute in keeping its focus on the conditions in places outside the grounds of stately homes, even as late as 20 years after the end of Downton.

An early episode discusses the deliberately punitive workhouse regime of the 19th century; the entire thing is basically a love letter to the National Health Service, and the infrastructure that provided healthcare to Britain. With its endless scenes of women laboring in difficult conditions, Call the Midwife shows the sheer physical toil that went into maintaining even the basics of life among those who had so little; a lot of the drama on Downton Abbey took place in private rooms as the bodies of upper-crust women were lavished with care.

there’s an uncomfortable, glaring overlap between Downton… AND Boris Johnson’s entire soldiering-bravely-onward pitch for a No Deal Brexit.

“The Downton film is so everyone can take two hours off Brexit!” Julian Fellowes joked in an interview with the BBC. But it was impossible for me to watch Downton without picturing Jacob Rees-Mogg stretched out across a bench in Parliament, looking like a caricature of some spoiled, languorous son of privilege who doesn’t feel obliged to respect much of anyone because he considers himself their betters: a minor Downton character, in other words. (His father was a longtime editor of the establishment Times and ultimately created a life peer.) He has, of course, published a paean to Britain’s great Victorian past, the sunset of which is Downton’s primary concern; he styles himself in the tradition of men like Lord Grantham, who would probably snub him for being a presumptuous, jumped-up little nerd. If he were to appear in Downton, it would be as a low-level villain.

But Downton has become an international ambassador for a very specific notion of British identity, and its creators are not unaware. “In other parts of the world people revere our actors, our writing and production talent. It is something I am passionate about; I am a really strong believer in soft power. We are not nearly as proud of our achievements as we should be,” producer Gareth Neame told the Guardian in 2015. “It [Downton Abbey] is iconic for expressing Britishness. Really it is a fantasy world, based in a particular time in history.” Unfortunately, the same could be said for Brexit, and there’s an uncomfortable, glaring overlap between Downton’s insistence on trucking stubbornly along in the tradition of one’s illustrious and better-funded forebears and Boris Johnson’s entire soldiering-bravely-onward pitch for a No Deal Brexit.

The movie makes brief mention of the 1926 British general strike, a gesture to those changing times that are happening out there, somewhere, and largely manifesting in Downton as telephones and a smaller staff; it’s played off with a characteristic joke by the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) about how her maid is constitutionally a communist. But there’s also a brief, promising interlude in the movie when the boiler is acting up and they have to call a plumber from outside the estate. The man who arrives is broad-shouldered and almost swaggering, full of justified confidence in his own abilities. He knows his worth—without him, it’s almost unmanageable to provide the amount of hot water they’ve grown to expect—and he says openly that he has big plans for his life. It’s cliche, but his brief presence really did feel like a breeze on a hot, still day, and it was a disappointment when he left, taking all that borderline insolence with him. It made me wish Anna had aimed a little higher with her organizing talents.

The Downton Abbey movie hits U.S. theaters Friday, September 20

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin