A week ago I was having a conversation in the Fox News green room about the Downton Abbey movie with ...well, go on, guess: Tucker? Kilmeade? No, it was Tyrus. A hulking ex-professional wrestler who could crush the average effete English earl between his toes doesn't seem the most obvious fan of Downton's doings, and we disagreed on Lady Mary, for whom he has an intense loathing and to whose icy bitchery I've warmed up over the years. But it does suggest the broad appeal of Julian Fellowes' "franchise", and helps explain why, franchise-wise, Downton Abbey clobbered the latest Rambo at the box office: Stallone's swan song cost three times as much and its box-office take is less than half.
To be sure, if you've never seen the earlier capers, it will be largely meaningless as a stand-alone movie - but then that's true of the new Rambo and X-Men and Ant-Man and everything else at the multiplex. Perhaps, in the manner of The Avengers, they should have subtitled it Downton: Endgame, or Infinity Tea or Age of Carson. Strung around a visit to the Abbey by George V and Queen Mary, the plot hinges on a broken boiler and the servants' resentment at a toffee-nosed Page of the Back Stairs from Buckingham Palace - so it makes a nice change from the Incredible Hulk ripping yet another hole in the space-time continuum. That said, Michael Engler's cinematic Downton lacks the tart wit of the better telly seasons: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is worked to the bone as a drive-thru one-liner dispenser, and the pursed lips get a bit heavy-handed, as it were. On the other hand, Kevin Doyle's footman Molesley, who reliably goes to pieces under the stress of great events, as usual collapses to the occasion in the presence of Their Majesties.
But I missed the pleasure the series took in cultural difference: A couple of seasons back, Lady Grantham's New York uncle came to stay, accompanied by his valet - or val-ay, as Americans say. Carson the butler presses the val-ay into service as a third footman at dinner. "Try one of these," he says, proffering the tray at a passing ladyship. "They're really good."
"Good heavens, man!" Carson hisses. "You're a footman, not a traveling salesman."
As I mentioned on last month's Mark Steyn Cruise, Julian Fellowes takes the Conservative whip in the House of Lords and is very publicly a Brexiteer: As he proposed to the leftie luvvies of his cast at the film's gala premiere, "Truce for tonight?" I'm not sure what the precise Hollywood equivalent would be - Ted Cruz or Rand Paul creating a massive network smash and joshing about a Trumpian truce to Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham and the rest of the cast? But it would be healthier if there were a "Hollywood equivalent"...
The American reviewers get a bit queasy faced with hardcore porn for stiff-upper-Brit nostalgists, acknowledging Downton's awesome seductive power while affecting to be entirely unseduced themselves. So the New York Times reviewer, Jeannette Catsoulis, did the usual throat-clearing about a "warm bath of privilege" with "the scum of entitlement", and declared that "Downton Abbey argues insistently for the status quo". That's a bit unfair to the Earl and Countess of Grantham, one of whose daughters shags a Turk to death, while another runs off with the Fenian chauffeur, the third has a child out of wedlock and becomes (horrors!) a Fleet Street columnist, and after dating a black bandleader the niece settles down with a Jew only to find it's the Jews who are upset about it. That's a more thorough loosening of the stays of social rigidity than, I'll wager, Jeannette Catsoulis' forebears were doing a century back, and through it all milord Grantham - played by Hugh Bonneville as a decent old stick sufficiently self-aware of his own unremarkability - rubs along as best he can.
Just as telling are the small changes. One night in one of the early seasons, Lord Grantham tells his valet that he quite likes these new-fangled "dinner jackets" and black tie he's seen in London, and he starts to wear them in lieu of white tie and tails - at first just occasionally, then on nights when the Dowager is not present, and finally one night when she is, at which she mistakes him for a waiter. By the time of this movie - 1927 - it's his routine dinner garb except when (as here) the King and Queen come a-calling, for which the old tailcoat, knee-breeches and stockings have to be fished out from the back of the wardrobe.
Nine decades on, no one dresses for dinner, and dinner itself - in the sense of a shared family meal - is a vanished ritual. I was startled to discover the other day that certain gentlemen's clubs no longer require ties, merely a "collared shirt", which is surely the finest smidgeonette from requiring the knee pockets on one's cargo pants to be buttoned. After talking with Tyrus, I strolled up Fifth Avenue, the most glittering street in America's most famous metropolis: Had Lord Grantham suddenly materialized in 2019, he would have thought a Wellsian dystopia was upon us, the sidewalks heaving with middle-aged men and women kitted out as overgrown children. I'm not (quite) saying the death-spiral of civilization began with ceasing to dress for dinner, but one of the things that makes Julian Fellowes' writing "conservative" is his sense that, in small things as in big, change is necessarily accompanied by loss.
That's it. Downton Abbey doesn't "argue insistently for the status quo"; it accepts that there's no such thing, that free and fluid societies are constantly shifting, for good or ill: a housemaid can become a businesswoman, an earl's daughter a publisher - and an ill-starred landowner can become a wraith in an ancestral mausoleum from which all life is fled save ancient memories of when the Duchess of Connaught and "both the Fife princesses" came to stay. In almost all other contemporary drama, all change is good and without consequence; Fellowes simply observes that it's more complicated than that: That's all, but it's quite something in the arid landscape of 2019 Hollywood.
For example, in the new film Barrow the homosexual butler (Robert James-Collier) finds himself dancing the Black Bottom in a Yorkshire gay club at the moment it's raided by the peelers. He's bailed out by Ellis, a member of the Royal Household of similar bent, and they spend a tender night together. Afterwards, Barrow wonders if anything will ever change for chaps like them, and Ellis, noting that in 1850 no one thought man would be flying around in aeroplanes, counsels patience and discretion - to which Vanity Fair's critic sneered that "Fellowes can't help his sex-shaming impulses" and is advocating a return to the closet.
No, he's not. Thomas is a butler in 1927, and this is the first action he's had since getting it on with a duke in Series One, Episode One. To argue that he should stomp into the dining room, climb on the table and sing "I Am What I Am" is to deny that there ever was or can be a 1927 - that, whatever the detail of their period costumes, all characters must be mere marionettes for the superior attitudes of our own time. Which is one reason most films today are so bloody boring.
True, Downton Abbey is soap, and got soapier as it went on. But it's soap played out against the profound societal shifts of the Great War and its aftermath - which, even at its most formulaic, makes it about something at a time when a lot of contemporary drama isn't. Besides, the cast brims with actors - Jim Carter as Carson, Phyllis Logan as the housekeeper Mrs Hughes - one could watch do anything. In fact, one does: decanting wine, mending frocks.
I confess I have been less persuaded by Allen Leech as Branson, the Irish revolutionary chauffeur who arrives at Downton with a socialist chip on his shoulder and leaves with the youngest daughter. Midway through the TV run, he was back in the Emerald Isle cheerily burning down the stately homes of girls Lady Mary had been presented at Court with; the following week, he's back at Downton with all that beastly republicanism behind him and enjoying a new position as Lady Mary's right-hand man running the estate. What kind of Paddy O'Pauline conversion is that? Heigh-ho. What remains of his socialism will hitherto be confined to an eye for Bolshevik schoolmarms and other village totty.
In the new film, the dining room's token republican is required to do a good turn both for a king he can barely bring himself to acknowledge with a churlish nod, and, somewhat more accidentally, for his sovereign's unhappily wed daughter, Princess Mary. I don't know how plausible a character Branson is as historical reality (although Erskine Childers straddled, for a while, country-house weekends and republican absolutism): I gather he only exists because, after auditioning for the role with a Yorkshire accent, Allen Leech put down the script and reverted to his native Dublin - and Julian Fellowes, on a whim, said, "Why don't we try it in Irish?" And so here we are: as the twinkly-eyed charmer with the leprechaun smile and a touch of the blarney tells the apolitical earl, "I know you find my opinions highly entertaining."
Fellowes is now promising a sequel to the movie. I'm curious to see one set in this century: Did the earldom survive? And with the estate intact? Or did the Crawley family join the dispossessed marquesses and bankrupt viscounts who flit in and out of the series? Is Downton now a teacher-training college? Or the fiefdom of a Kazakh oligarch? Or are the Granthams still there, albeit with a safari park in the grounds? Did Lady Mary's young son grow up to serve in the ministry of Harold Wilson, or Mrs Thatcher? Is his grandson a pop promoter or a PR man? Downton Abbey is a tale of survival, and it would be nice to know if, in the end, they do.
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