“I’m glad I’m a revelation and not a disappointment,” mused matriarch, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), dowager countess of Grantham. The film “Downton Abbey” speaks for itself as a British drama that educates viewers about the ideas informing the prevalent social barriers and customs of the early 20th century. Originating from a critically acclaimed five-season series, the beloved “Downton Abbey” could have certainly resulted in failure if not for the return of director Michael Engler, screenwriter Julian Fellowes and several members of the original cast.
Shot in the astounding setting of Hampshire, a county on the southern coast of England, specifically inside Highclere Castle, “Downton Abbey” invites audiences into the aristocratic world of the Crawley family and the indentured lives of the family’s servants. In this new adventure, relationships are shaken and formal etiquette is strained within the social hierarchy when King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) come to visit, bringing their own party of servants.
“Downton Abbey” succeeds marvelously in delivering audiences into the social web that connects the lives of numerous characters — doing so in a manner that doesn’t neglect one or the other, but also gives each a coveted spotlight. This Jane Austen-esque treatment of character arcs creates a conglomerate movement of plotlines and simultaneously allows a separation of predicaments.
“You can love the people you disagree with,” argues Tom Branson (Allen Leech), a former chauffeur who the series saw climb the social hierarchy, through marriage, into the role of estate manager. “Downton Abbey” is set in an era when bloodline families lived in such close proximity to servants that intimate or confidential relationships frequently formed between them. The ideas of the perpetual evolution of marriage, inheritance and status are intricately approached by the film through the rigid positioning that the concepts of family and community are placed in.
The heart of this community is on explicit display when the Crawley family’s servants fight back against the audacity and pride of their royal counterparts in order to have the honor of serving the king and queen dinner. The grandeur and pomp of the shallow event is polarized with a clandestine gay social gathering that a servant, namely Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), attends. Both happenings are presented in a decadent back-and-forth cut that forces the audience to confront the social stratification as what it really is. The scene brilliantly encapsulates the tension and experience of how class and identity react with one another within individuals and groups: The king and queen decorously pay their compliments to the servants, and the police invade the “dirty perverts” with a virulent disgust.
In all its solemnity, “Downton Abbey” is also keen on a cheeky lightheartedness that complements and defines the bonds between its characters. Smith is the chief source of this, enfolding her wise words and demeanor in witty sarcasm. This comic relief brings a theatrical humanity that carves authenticity and realism deep into the film.
Duty versus heart, legacy, secrets and cowardice are all explored as well to give a clearer picture and portrayal of the primary principles and ethos of this epoch. These various challenges in the 1900s are historically relevant to the present day scope of thought, as Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) wrestles throughout the film with the question of what it means to own her life.
Fellowes astutely prompts these age-old questions not necessarily to answer them in his film, but perhaps to see where the questions lie and how they are being answered today. To echo the ambivalence of Princess Mary (Kate Phillips), “I suppose in the end it’s what’s important.”