Saturday, September 21, 2019

Downton Abbey (The Movie)

Rolling Stone probably got it right that Downton Abbey "is less an actual movie than a special episode" of the fantastic, six-season TV series that won over audiences, literally the world over, from 2011 to 2016 - PBS's highest rated dramatic series ever. Written by the same Tory peer Julian Fellowes and featuring most (sadly not all) of the much beloved original cast, the film exists entirely in response to its faithful audience's desire for even more of this wonderful period-piece drama of love and loss, tradition and change, set in early 20th-century Yorkshire - a fitting successor to the venerable pioneer of this genre, the 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs (set in London in roughly the same time period).

The film takes place in 1927, some two years after the series' finale, when the seemingly staid and conventional (but actually often in constant turmoil) aristocratic routines of the extended Crawley family and their army of servants are unexpectedly (indeed tumultuously) interrupted by a visit from Their Majesties the King-Emperor George V and Queen-Empress Mary - with all the wonderful things Their Majesties get to do and that others get to watch (and in various ways work to make happen).

Our favorite familiar characters behave more or less as we would expect, which is not to say stereotypically, since the the characters' behavior (both upstairs and downstairs) has always been more complex and surprising - and for that reason more interesting than the stereotypes the series suggests. 

So we get to see the staff pull off an implausible but successful coup to avoid the day off. We watch Tom Branson, one-time Irish revolutionary, provide exemplary service to the Crown.  We enjoy Andy and Daisy finally figuring it out. We see both Barrow and Branson finally find love. And we watch Lady Mary come completely into her own as the new doyenne of Downtown Abbey.

Downtown Abbey's monumental evocation of an era of bygone glamor and aristocratic order and its dutiful sensibility seems to have touched a chord in our disordered post-modern era of glamorless crassness and duty-free sensibility. In this, it may be not unlike the recent craze for the previous century's eminent author Jane Austin and her world of good language and good manners.

Of course, Downtown Abbey appeals to a certain sort of nostalgia - for a world none of its audience ever actually has lived in, but which is chronologically and culturally close enough that we can still really recognize and relate to it. However encased in cultural expectations their audience no longer shares, its characters are recognizably like us, at least enough so. And however staid and conventional the traditions according to which the characters live and understand themselves and their world (both upstairs and downstairs), their actual experience is one of constant and at times tumultuous change, accompanied by the threat of even greater change. From our historical vantage point, of course, we can see that threat of even more and greater change coming over the horizon. In human terms, we can relate to the characters ambivalence about the changes in their world from the perspective of our own comparable ambivalence a century later.

In the end, of course, it is a story of recognizably real people living in a world and system they didn't create, the benefits of which they are desperately trying to hold onto, while alternately resisting and embracing changes that are tearing apart the very fabric of their lives. Downton Abbey reprises that universal story of modernity - stunningly portrayed in a beautiful setting by excellent actors playing genuinely interesting and complicated people.

No wonder so many fell in love with the series and have so eagerly awaited this movie!

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