By Caryn James | James on Screens January 6, 2011 at 2:56AM
In 1912, the aristocrats and servants at Downton Abbey live in a world where bad news comes by telegram – like the one informing Lord Grantham that his cousin and heir has been lost with the Titanic. By the end of this sumptuous, endlessly entertaining miniseries, it is 1914, a new-fangled telephone has been installed, and we can see far better than the characters can that World War I is about to explode their stable world.
Writer Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Gosford Park, has crammed this mini-series with swirls of intrigue and drama, upstairs and down. And the design is as extravagant as you could hope for. (Some people will envy the huge pile of a house and its estates; I want the ladies’ hats.) Fans of Masterpiece will automatically be there. But even reluctant viewers might be surprised as how much high drama and social conflict Fellowes has included. On one side are people like Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his dowager mother (Maggie Smith, as good as she has ever been), who prize their family’s history and resist change. On the other, those like Lord Grantham’s new heir, his distant cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens), a lawyer who sees no need to give up his interesting day job or let a valet pick out his tie.
Lord Grantham – Robert to a very few-- so romanticizes the legacy of Downton that he refuses to try to break the entail that says the estate must pass to a male, that his oldest daughter cannot inherit. But Fellowes has no such romantic notions. Robert married his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), for her money, and fell in love with her later. The oldest of their three daughters, Mary (Michelle Dockery) was engaged to marry the heir, keeping the estate tidily in their grasp. The natural next move would be for her to marry Matthew, but she resists being told what to do, and besides, how could she marry someone so middle-class?
Throughout, Fellowes lets his plot lead in a predictable direction, only to make some swerve you didn’t see coming. And while he creates a few pure villains, most characters are as complex as life. Lord Grantham is backward-looking, but driven by a sincere sense of duty. Mary, admirable for her strong will and less so for her snobbishness, is a fascinating heroine tethered to the past but with an eye on the changing world. Matthew comes to see how important running the Downton estate might be for the workers who live on it.
The cast is full of other intriguing characters, including the Granthams’ plain middle daughter, who wants only to marry, and their pretty youngest, a feminist. Penelope Wilton is wonderfully subtle as Matthew’s mother, Isobel, a former nurse who can move between the middle class and aristocracy, but shows the tentativeness on her face.
The servants have their own class system, their own secrets and villains. It turns out that the rigid head butler, Carson (Jim Carter; all these actors are familiar faces if not names, you’ll see) has a past that casts his posture in an eye-opening light. One of the younger maids hides the typewriter she is learning to use, hoping to get a job as a secretary, a huge move upward for a poor farmer's daughter.
Social upheaval is about to erupt everywhere, but this undercurrent never slows down the story, which is laced with just enough melodrama. When a handsome Turkish diplomat comes to visit, you can see his tryst with someone in the household looming. (Jane Austen’s characters were never this sexy.) But the end of the affair is a stunner with lasting repercussions. In another bedroom, there is even a gay kiss.
At times Fellowes’ dialogue is surprisingly clunky. Maybe he did have to include the exposition about the entail, but he didn’t have to make the characters announce themselves so bluntly. Lord Grantham, the man of conscience, tends to say things like, “I just didn’t think it was right.” More often, the lines sparkle. “I’d hate to go behind Robert’s back,” Cora tells her mother-in-law, and the dowager countess responds, in Maggie Smith’s drollest voice, “That is a scruple no successful wife can afford.”
Masterpiece will show Downton Abbey over four weeks on PBS, beginning on Sunday. Later in the spring, it will show the new sequel to Upstairs, Downstairs, the beloved 70’s series. In Britain, where both new series have already aired, Downton edged out Upstairs, Downstairs in the ratings, and a new season in already in the works.
Take a look at this clip, in which middle-class Matthew first comes to dinner, and you’ll get a glimpse of what makes Downton Abbey one of the richest miniseries in years.