Friday, March 18, 2011

Downton Abbey

I have become thoroughly enthralled with a new series, Downton Abbey, set in April 1912-August 1914. It centers around the family and household of the Earl of Grantham, who is married to an American heiress with whom he has three daughters. When his cousins and male heirs die aboard the ill-fated Titanic, it sets the stage for some interesting complications, especially for his eldest daughter, Mary, and the new heir, Matthew.

The family is troublesome enough, with an uneasy alliance between his mother, the dowager Countess (played by the formidable Maggie Smith), and his wife whose fortune has been subsumed by the estate in such a way as to make it impossible for her to separate it from the inheiritance of Grantham itself. On top of this are the three feuding sisters; Mary, Edith and Sybil, with their differing personalities and politics, a middle-class heir and his strident mother, and an ever-revolving score of visitors and possible suitors.

This would be enough to retain interest and keep the story going, but in a parallel and intriguingly intersecting world are the lives of the servants of Grantham. There's a stiff butler with a more colorful past, a bossy cook, sneaky (and not-so-secretly gay) footman, disabled valet, socialist chauffeur, ambitious maid, and a downright despicable Lady's maid. They connive, fall in love, sneak away, conceal their defects and reveal their hopes all while doing the things that servants do. At times the members of the family help or hinder them, and are in turn aided and thwarted by them.

Lest you think it's all domestic quarrels and lush sets and costumes though, be aware that an understanding of the politics and history of the time period will permit a more enjoyable viewing. There are Turkish visitors, women's rights, medical advances, references to wars, architecture, and headlines, not to mention rising hemlines. If, however, you want to watch it simply for the sets and costumes, you won't be disappointed; they are simply beautiful. There is something so lovely about the draping, delicately ornamented evening gowns, and large framing hats that balances the aesthetics of the older, more formal Victorian world with the new century. There are rich hues of scarlet and violet and emerald green, and then pinks, creams and soft blues, combined in such a way that the men and women all look as if they absolutely belonged together. Oftentimes the three sisters are in similar shades, or their colors are played off of each other (strong color to soft color for example) to show who has the upper hand in a situation. Though the designer, Susannah Buxton, he relatively unknown in America, her costuming is very well done and is quite the equal of any Hollywood regular.

Filmed on location in Britain Downton has only the best in interiors to choose from, and they are shown to full effect. My favorites are actually the servants rooms, and it's fun to get a better understanding of how such a house worked, from the scullery maid's timing, to exactly how many people it took to make all of the beds and dress everybody for dinner. Little details like the mens and womens quarters with the lock in between, and the way they revere or seek to escape "service" is extremely enlightening, especially as various characters grapple with whether or not to stay in their careers and what they must give up if they do.

If you love Gosford Park, you would enjoy Downton Abbey. I am trying to pace myself through the limted 7 episodes of season 1, as season 2 does not begin until Autumn 2011. It will be a long wait until then.

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