Downton Abbey and the Grace of the Agitated Allegorical Swan
Depending on which version of the story you believe, the English started using the term “my cup of tea” sometime in the 1800s and always in the positive tense. It was only in the 1920s that the more negative “not my cup of tea” entered the lexicon as a rejection of something. Which is fitting, since the film version of Downton Abbey finds the story now well into the 1920s. With its widest audience and attention ever, folks are deciding again whether the trials of the Crawley family & staff are worth their time and attention. If taking the number one slot at the weekend box office — despite having fewer screens showing than its two main competitors — the return of the beloved show is still very much folks’ cup of tea.
Just how it is that machinations of English country life became an international phenomenon first as a TV show, and now as a feature film, is rather amazing. There was little chance the show would be a failure, with the pedigree of those involved, but few saw it becoming what it now is. Creator Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for screenwriting penning Gosford Park, and in it’s embryonic stages Downton was envisioned as being a spin off of that film’s success. Thankfully, that idea morphed into the stand-alone world of Downton Abbey. The ITV series debuted to UK audiences before it crossed the pond to America as part of Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Normally PBS is not a ratings juggernaut, but the show none the less worked its way into American homes through word-of-mouth, critical acclaim, and in later seasons awards and praise. By the time the show ended its run over the holidays in 2015, it was beloved. Talk of a movie started almost immediately, and now here we are.
That is the how, the timeline of Downton, from pen to page to screen to theater. Of course, what made Downton Abbey a success wasn’t just the expertise with which it was created, but the emotional chords it hit. Putting it on the big screen just amplifies what Downton Abbey is, and isn’t. It’s the anti-blockbuster, plot-wise the polar opposite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark and company find those little, quiet emotional moments, backdropped to the CGI assault superheroes need when saving the world and tying up the plot lines of 23 movies, that contrast all of the over-the-top loud with gut-wrenching emotion in key quiet parts. It is the secret sauce that makes those films, and any film really, successful in connecting with an audience.
Downton Abbey is the opposite. When the busy-as-can-be servants hear, along with the audience, the line “A royal visit is like a swan on a lake; Beauty and grace above, demented kicking below,” from one of the visiting royal staff, it could just as easily be about the series and film itself. Downton’s genteel primness is the outer layer of beauty and grace, backdropped with the splendid Highclere Castle and gorgeous English countryside that oozes from the screen as much as it’s watched. The lush visuals, and soaring musical score, make it almost too postcard-ish sometimes. All that quiet emotive stuff is on top, with the action furiously kicking below the surface like that agitated allegorical swan.
But that furiously kicking stuff is also where the human moments shine brightest against the grandeur and reel it all back in. You can watch the film as a standalone, and go into it with no knowledge at all of the characters and be fine. Fellowes is as a good a screenwriter as there is, and being in his wheelhouse here he makes sure most of them get their moments. But those who know the show get their own, extra layer to it all. There are not a lot of plot surprises, and indeed it teeters toward the predictable for the hardcore fans. The accusation of fanservice can fairly be leveled, but that rings hollow when it’s the fandom that propelled the need for more period drama from this ensemble in the first place. Those whose cup of tea this isn’t can find it all very corny. Those who think this tea is just right enjoy sipping with a smile as they raise a pinky, realizing the stuff and nonsense of Carson spouting lines like “Wherever my king needs me” while overtly puffing out his chest not as a metaphor but more as an in-joke to a thoroughly developed character, has just enough self-awareness to keep it on the endearing side of the ridiculous line.
That balance is maintained by the emotional strings that Fellowes manages to play, not unlike the strings the orchestra in the ballroom scenes used to bracket lots of dancing, lots of looks between characters, lots of drama that is more hinted at than exposited. Downton Abbey, even in the big screen version, is still best sipped and savored with enough self-awareness stirred in so that the over-the-top lushness of it all manages to hold to some semblance of level. Plenty will point out the class issues that get glossed over, and the romanticization of the upper class and royal families. But even that gets subtly poked at by the still insufferable Lady Mary declaring that the stopping of rain for the royal festivities is proof that God is a monarchist. Far from a religious statement, it’s more a statement of fact that things just need to be a certain way because they need to be, to keep everything just so.
Which is how revisiting the world of Downton Abbey feels; everything is how it needs to be because it’s the way it has to be to still be Downton. Fellowes trods the old paths because we need him too, because the story needs to, because it would be something else if he didn’t. Something lesser. Something that isn’t an escape from the current world, where the trials of modernizing Edwardians trying to survive both the visit of George V and the relentless march of time. Something that lets us obsess over their problems to forget our own for a while. Downton Abbey by the end of the film is vastly different than the one that received a telegram announcing the sinking of the Titanic at the launching of the series. The world is quite different as well. But with Highclere Castle playing its role perfectly, by just looking stately in the wide shots, lets Carson’s closing line about it all lasting another 100 years feels more like he’s talking to us than the house behind him. Some things pass away, like the grand living of the aristocracy in the English countryside and the trials and tribulations of those who propped them up, because they were unsustainable in a changing world. But the humanity of a struggle not against change — which even the characters of Downton have come to realize is futile — but of adapting to change as best you can whatever your station in life, is the plot of life. That is the eternal drama of the human experience regardless of your wealth or title, the same path from birth to death everyone trods whether they like it or not, whether server or served, whether they like tea or not.
Maybe a hundred years from now a talented writer will pen a series about folks in America who, during a turbulent time, enjoyed an English period drama that moved slowly, talked grandly, and kept the crazy below the surface and mostly downstairs. Mostly. Imagine doing that in real time in the real world, in our day and age, handling the ins and outs of life in a way that our friend the agitated swan could be an allegory for us. Some folks would find that kind of restraint corny, or old-fashioned, or even boring. But all that boring, old-fashioned, corny stuff is the number one movie in America right now, so the argument and audience for the Swan method of drama management wins the day at least for now. There are far worse ways of doing things than to be graceful to look at, calm on the surface, no matter how demented the kicking below gets. If only we could do the same for all the drama in our lives. Wouldn’t that just be everyone’s cup of tea, even if the Downton Abbey version of drama isn’t?