Downton Abbey


            1927 England.  A fabulous estate in the countryside, and a family of wealth and means.  But it isn't just about the nobility and their fabulous foibles, it's also about the people downstairs, in the servant's quarters, yes, the skullery maids and the cooks and the butlers and the valets----all are necessary for the totality of Downton Abbey.  You don't have to have watched the television series, but it helps, because there are many characters, and a lot of moving parts.  And it's all very British.

            Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham, literally the lord of the manor, and he does so with dignity and aplomb.  He's a credit to his rapidly-disappearing ilk.  His older daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is slowly but surely taking control of the business of running the place, even though sometimes she doubts she really wants the duty.  His younger daughter, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), feeling the stirrings of early feminism, finds she enjoys being independent, but she also cares enough about the Abbey to enjoy a feisty rivalry with her sister.

            And there's nobody more feisty than Maggie Smith, playing Violet Crawley, the family matriarch.  They give her some great caustic punch lines, and she really knows how to deliver them.  We want to see more of her even though her character is not entirely a sympathetic one:  she obviously enjoys playing the crusty curmudgeon.

            The whole place is an an uproar because the King and Queen are coming to visit.  Something about a stop along their scheduled tour, complete with a parade and a military review and lots of royal pageantry.  The subplot is really located downstairs, in the servants quarters, where the regulars have not taken kindly to the idea of royal servants being brought in to displace them during the visit.  They hatch a plot to, ah, make their unwanted replacements temporarily indisposed, so that the Downton Abbey regulars may have the honor of serving the King and Queen all to themselves.

            And therein lies the underlying Anglophilia that fuels this whole enterprise.  And even though we Americans had a Revolution overthrowing our allegiance to the English crown, and all it represents, still, there's a part of us that loves all the pomp and circumstance, complete with the dukes and the earls and the princesses, the ladies-in-waiting and the polished silver, the crumpets on silver trays and the gloved butlers in tuxedos.

            Oh, they made sure there are a few outliers in the mix.  Lord Grantham is married to (gasp) an American, played by Elizabeth McGovern.  But besides the fact that she doesn't have the right accent to be one of them, she accepts her role with grace and charm.  Tom Branson (Allen Leech) plays the widower of the third daughter, and he started there as a chauffer.  And, he's an Irishman.  But he has learned to put aside all his natural disinclinations toward all the pomposity and grandiose affectations, because he's become convinced that this landed-gentry family is actually good at heart.  And so is he, as he proves by helping to foil a dastardly plot to harm the King, not because he's done anything wrong personally, but because of the stultified monarchy he represents.

            Well, those of us who love this stuff will just continue to enjoy looking at overdressed people waltzing to full orchestras, each seeking some semblance of love amidst the slow decline of a once-glorious but now aging Empire.

            A spot of tea, anyone?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association