January 24, 2011

Downton Abbey

Masterpiece Theatre comes out with a bang in it's 2011 season with their production of Downton Abbey. Created and written by Gosford Park and Young Victoria writer, Julian Fellowes (he is also the librettist of Mary Poppins currently on Broadway), Downton Abbey is a family saga involving the Crawley family set in pre-WWI England. It is set at a time where old English ways and traditions clash with the changing times in England with the coming of modernization and the blossoming clamour for women's rights.

The Crawley family is headed by the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), owner and Lord of Downton Abbey. As the story opens one finds out that the Downton Abbey estate is entailed. An entail is a law where an estate is passed on to an heir as a whole (which includes furniture, land, tenants, servants and even the money of the family). It cannot be sold, partitioned nor revised by will and is passed on to the male heir of the Crawley family. Here in lies Lord Grantham's dilemma, for he has 3 daughters. And his heir apparent, his cousin Patrick Crawley, who was betrothed to his eldest daughter, Mary, perishes at the sinking of the Titanic. The family must now adapt to the coming of an new heir apparent, an unknown cousin, Matthew Crawley who is a solicitor and son of a doctor.

Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Lord Grantham's wife and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), his mother, are determined to fight and question the entail to give Mary a future. Meanwhile, Lord Grantham is resigned to having Matthew as his heir. More conflict arises when Mary and Matthew meet on the wrong footing. Matthew is overheard by Mary saying that the Crawley family will be imposing their oldest daughter on him once they learn that he's a bachelor. Mary in turn finds her new cousin very middle class (him being a solicitor) and being ungentlemanly with his remarks and in his ways. (Oh how very Pride and Prejudice!)

In the meantime, Mr. Fellowes also shows us, the audience, the lives behind the scenes. The people who live downstairs, who make Downton Abbey work, the servants. He gives us a peek into servant life, on the "class" system of their little society downstairs. The rules and hierarchy of where each servant falls into place as well as their wants and dreams. I am much impressed with how much respect the writer has written these characters for he has shown how loyal and proud they are with their roles in the house. He emphasizes how much dignity they bequeath to their chosen profession whether it's a butler, a maid or head of the household. Aside from Remains of the Day and Gosford Park, I haven't seen a movie which delves deeply on this area before.

The plot is intricately written with surprise twists and conflicts but I am most impressed with how well the characters are written and developed. Every character in this saga has a story. Even to the lowliest maid. They are all interesting that one wants to get to know them more. Comprised of an ensemble cast who are all superb, the acting in this mini-series is flawless. I do have to say though that Dame Maggie Smith is fabulous as the Dowager Countess. She has the sassiest lines and delivers them perfectly with very subtle comic timing. She is delight!

There have been three episodes of Downton Abbey so far that have been broadcast on PBS. The finale is this Sunday. However, you can catch up on the episodes online or on demand (Comcast). But if you're not able to do that, the DVD is also available. Whatever you do though, don't miss this wonderful and well written story.


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