As I wrote in my DVD review, I can’t remember a recent British costumer that I’ve enjoyed more than “Downton Abbey,” which was released on DVD the same month that it aired on PBS. The acting is first-rate, the characters (though recognizable types) are dripping with personality, the scenery and cinematography make you feel as if you’re living right there in Edwardian England before the First World War, and, as in “Upstairs, Downstairs” (1971), you get an account of both a wealthy family and the cadre of servants who take care of them–but have their own problems.
While “Upstairs, Downstairs” was set in a townhouse in the heart of London, “Downton Abbey” concerns a family of nobles who live in an ancestral mansion near a small town. It was filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire and the town of Bampton in Oxfordshire, and the pastoral and small-town setting offer a completely different perspective of Edwardian life and noble/commoner interaction than we saw in the popular 1971 series. Plus, it’s done with less melodrama. In terms of its tone, its stakes, dramatic arcs, attention to detail, ensemble cast, and overall quality, “Downton Abbey” is superior to “Upstairs, Downstairs,” as good as that production was.
It didn’t surprise me at all to learn after seeing it that “Downton Abbey” purportedly cost one million pounds per hour to film, or that it became the highest rated British period drama since “Brideshead Revisited” (1981), with more than 10 million U.K. viewers tuning in. It’s the kind of show that one hopes would look good in High Definition, and that turns out to be the case (more on that later).
The richly textured and intelligent script from Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for “Gosford Park” (2001), feeds Dame Maggie Smith delicious lines to deliver with her incomparable mixture of crustiness, drollness, and mischief as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. When Smith is in a scene, her enormous presence fills the room, and each line (both facial and verbal) is like a ripe fruit to be savored. But while the others can’t quite match her onscreen charisma, the rest of the cast is nonetheless superb. They play off her nicely, too, especially Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the American her son married in a merger of his title/estate and her money. So much is done with facial gestures and posture in those two-shots that it makes you smile. They’re all so darned good, so believable.
Hugh Bonneville (“Iris,” “Notting Hill”), who plays Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, carries himself like an Earl–or, since I’ve never met one, how I believe an Earl would act. An even-tempered man who feels his aristocratic lifestyle slipping away but determined to remain genteel, Crawley accepts what appears to be fate’s judgment. His cousin and the son who was presumed to marry his oldest daughter went down with the Titanic. Because Crawley has no male offspring, Downton Abbey is suddenly slated to pass to Matthew Crowley (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin and virtual outsider who arrives shortly thereafter with his mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), to get the lay of the land. Immediately it becomes apparent that they have no idea how well-bred people are supposed to behave, and it doesn’t take long for their presence to galvanize a genteel resistance. Even some of the servants resent them, and the Dowager Countess suddenly cozies up to the daughter-in-law she never much cared for to try to figure out another way for the eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) to wed so they can keep Downton in the immediate family–even if it means plotting to set her up with Matthew.
None of this sets well with the second daughter, Edith (Laura Carmichael), who has Jan Brady syndrome and never gets the amount of attention she craves. And then there’s the third daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), who’s drawn to the emerging women’s suffrage movement and all things liberal or change-oriented, and is more inclined toward social democracy than maintaining the family’s aristocratic privileges.
There’s drama below-decks too in the kitchen and servants’ quarters. The butler (Jim Carter, as Mr. Carson) in charge of all the male “footmen” and motherly housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), in charge of all the female servants, have to deal with the arrival of a gimpy new valet, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), as well as servants whose personalities don’t exactly mesh well at times. One (Siobhan Finneran as Anna) likes the new man, who seems unable to return the affection; one is a cheeky homosexual who’s intent on causing trouble (Rob James-Collier as Thomas); one is the quintessential nice guy who gets shat on (Thomas Howes as William); one is secretly studying to become a secretary and elevate her station in life (Rose Leslie as Gwen); one is a meek pawn in their schemes (Sophie McShera as Daisy); one is a cook (Lesley Nicol) with eye problems that cause tension for the staff; and one is a chauffer (Alen Leech as Branson) who also sees himself designed for better things in a rapidly changing world. As Mr. Carson says to Mary, “Even a butler has his favorites,” and Mary does come across as the most transfixing of the three sisters.
Individually, the actors are fine, but when you put them together into an ensemble it’s quite an impressive whole that’s much stronger than the individual parts. That’s another strength of this series, and the dramas play out with the same talky but fascinating intensity of a “West Wing” episode . . . though slowed down to a 1913 pace. The time period is one of transition that provides some fun reaction shots, as when the Dowager Countess cringes in the presence of electric light bulbs and the entire servant staff has no idea what to do when the telephone newly installed finally begins to ring. The transitional period also makes for effective tinder to stoke the fires of change between the upper and lower classes, with some staff clinging to the old system and others embracing the new.
Cinematographers David Katznelson and David Marsh do a lot of interesting things with deep-focus shots and stationary cameras, and the entire first season–for “Downton Abbey” earned a second one–is deftly edited so that you’re conscious of both the artistry and the flow. There’s mystery here, but not much of it, and there are dark hearts at work, but not many of them. The good news is that the understated plot-turns help to keep melodrama at bay; the bad is that fans of “puzzlers” might wish for just a bit more complexity. But when the ensemble is so good and the scenery and location filming so engaging, it’s difficult to hold that against “Downton Abbey.”
“Downton Abbey” is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, “enhanced” for 16×9 televisions. There are a lot of golds and browns in the palette which, along with muting of other colors, helps to convey a period look. Even reds aren’t fully saturated, and in the servants’ quarters grey and white and black create a different mood entirely from the “upstairs” segments. Skin tones are natural-looking, black levels pulled back just a little, and there’s just enough grain to make it all look appropriately aged. There’s still plenty of filmic grain and texture, but there’s far more detail and sharp edges in the Blu-ray version, which produces a nice sense of 3-dimensionality. Some scenes with soft-focus backgrounds still have heavy grain and some noise, but for the most part “Downton Abbey” looks noticeably superior in HD.
The audio is surprisingly just an English Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, same as the DVD release. Maybe they’re thinking it’s all dialogue, but I expected something a little richer with some rear-channel involvement to take advantage of the British countryside locations. So the audio isn’t improved. Subtitles, meanwhile, are in English SDH again.
The bonus features are the same as on the DVD release: two featurettes in the 10-12 minute range. But what’s here is quite good. Featured in both is the countess who lives in Highclere and writer-creator Fellowes. In “The Making of Downton Abbey,” one assistant costume designer tellingly says that “we’re covering ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,” and the actresses talk about how difficult it was wearing corsets. Actresses playing servants discuss the marks they got on their hands and forearms from heavy lifting. Good stuff, really. In “Downton Abbey: A House in History,” a historical advisor and the house itself take center stage. A third feature is a British Heritage Pass infomercial that invites fans to visit the real Downton Abbey and other English sites from films–something that would have been more useful if it contained actual information or lasted longer than 40 seconds.
As Bonneville says, Downton House was a society, a microcosm, and that’s part of the fascination, really. “Downton House” is TV drama at its best, a Carnival Films/ITV production that’s almost as memorable, for me, as “I, Claudius.” It’s beautifully acted and beautifully filmed, and if you add this title to your collection, go with the Blu-ray. It’s a marked improvement.