“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Three (2012) Retrospective

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Three (2012) Retrospective

It took me a while to get around watching Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I had been inclined to watch it, while it aired on PBS last winter. But in the end, I decided to wait until the DVD release was offered through Netflix. 

I suspect that some of my reluctance to watch the show’s Series Three could be traced to my major disappointment over the lackluster Series Two. In fact, a part of me is amazed that the series’ shoddy look at World War I could end up with an Emmy nomination for Best Drama. But I figured that series creator, Julian Fellowes, would make up for the Emmy-nominated disaster known as Series Two with an improved third season. In the end, Series Three proved to be an improvement. Somewhat.

What did I like about Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY”? It possessed three plot lines that I found a good deal to admire:

1) The estate’s financial crisis
2) Valet Thomas Barrow’s infatuation with new footman Jimmy Kent
3) Lady Sybil Branson’s death

Downton Abbey’s financial crisis, kick-started by Robert, the Earl of Grantham’s disastrous investment into Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway, which truly emphasized the peer’s inability to handle money and his estate. In fact, this story line also exposed Lord Grantham’s other flaws – stubborness and inability to move with the times – in full force. Actually, the third story line involving the death of his youngest daughter, Lady Sybil Branson – of childbirth, did not paint a pretty picture of the peer, considering that his decision to ignore Dr. Clarkson’s medical advice led to Lady Sybil’s tragic death, following the birth of his oldest grandchild. The plot regarding Thomas Barrow’s feelings for Jimmy Kent allowed Fellowes to explore the status of homosexuals during early 20th century Britain. The plot surrounding Lady Sybil’s death in Episode Five not only proved to be heartbreaking, but also featured fine performances from the departing Jessica Findlay-Brown as the doomed Lady Sybil; Allen Leech as Sybil’s husband Tom Branson; David Robb as the desperate Dr. Clarkson; Rob James-Collier as a grieving Thomas Barrow; Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham; a guest appearance by Tim Pigott-Smith as the society doctor recruited by Lord Grantham to treat Lady Sybil; and especially Elizabeth McGovern, who I believe gave the best performance as Lady Sybil’s grieving mother, the American-born Countess of Grantham.

But even these first-rate story lines were marred by some questionable writing. Lord Grantham’s bad investment and financial loss had the family flailing for a bit, until salvation appeared in the form of a possible inheritance for the peer’s heir presumptive, son-in-law Matthew Crawley. The latter learned that Reginald Swire, the recently dead father of his late fiancée had named him as an heir to his vast fortune. Matthew felt reluctant to accept money from Lavinia Swire’s money, considering what happened before her death in Series Two. Most fans expressed frustration at Matthew’s reluctance to accept the money and save Downton Abbey. I felt nothing but contempt toward Fellowes for utilizing this ludicrous plot point to save the estate from financial ruin. I found it absolutely tasteless that Matthew would inherit money from the father of the fiancée who witnessed him kissing his future wife Lady Mary Crawley, before succumbing of the Spanish Flu. This was just tackiness beyond belief.

And I wish Fellowes had found another way for Lord Grantham or Matthew to acquire the cash needed to save the estate. Lady Sybil’s death and Lord Grantham’s participation in it led to a serious marital estrangement between the peer and his wife, who angrily blamed him for ignoring Dr. Clarkson’s medical advice. Lady Grantham’s anger lasted through most of Episode Six, until the Dowager Lady Grantham convinced the good doctor to lie to her son and daughter-in-law that his medical advice may not have saved Lady Sybil in the end, ending Lady Grantham’s anger and the marital strife between the pair. I suspect the majority of the series’ fans were relieved that Lord and Lady Grantham’s marriage had been saved before it could get any worse. I was not. I saw this as Fellowes’ reluctance or inability to fully explore the negative consequences of Sybil’s death. Even worse, I saw this as artistic cowardice on Fellowes’ part. A martial conflict between Robert and Cora could have spelled a dramatic gold mine.

Even the Thomas Barrow-Jimmy Kent storyline was marred by aspects that led me to shake my head in disbelief. The entire matter began with a minor feud between former friends Thomas and lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien over the former’s unwillingness to help the latter’s nephew, Alfred Nugent, with his duties. One, why would Thomas refuse to help the nephew of his only friend on the estate? And two, this little incident led O’Brien to escalate the feud, leading her to set up a scheme that would expose Thomas’ homosexuality? It seemed to come out of no where. This story line ended with more head scratching for me. First, Fellowes had Thomas sneaking into Jimmy’s bedroom for some petting and caresses, making for the former look like a sexual molester. One would think after his experiences with the Duke of Crowborough and Mr. Pamuk would have led him to be more careful. And following his exposure, Thomas faced losing his job and being arrested and convicted for his sexual preference. And while he faced personal censure from Mr. Carson, Alfred and the object of his desire, Jimmy Kent; most of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants seemed unusually tolerate of Thomas’homosexuality. Only Lord Grantham’s tolerance seemed to ring true, in light of his comments.

But there were other aspects of Series Three that failed to impress me. I read somewhere that Dan Stevens had informed Fellowes that he would not return for a fourth season, before they started filming this season. Judging from most of Stevens’ clunky dialogue in many of the episode, I got the feeling that Fellowes took his revenge on the actor. Stevens’ last lines following the birth of Matthew and Lady Mary’s son seemed like pure torture – “Can this hot and dusty traveler enter?” and “Oh my darling, I feel like I’ve swallowed fireworks!”. Fortunately, Stevens was provided with one scene in which he truly shone – when Matthew lost his temper over his father-in-law’s refusal to consider modernizing Downton Abbey’s estate management. And Matthew’s death in that last episode was one of the most clumsily directed sequences I have ever seen during the series’ three seasons, so far. Many critics and viewers blamed Shirley MacLaine for the poor characterization of Lady Grantham’s American mother, Martha Levinson. Even Fellowes went so far as to claim in this 2012 article that Americans cannot do period drama. Frankly, I found his comment full of shit and those critics and viewers unwilling to admit that the producer-writer did a piss-poor job in his creation of Martha’s character. Poor MacLaine was saddled with some ridiculous dialogue that no actor or actress – no matter how good they are – can overcome. Look at what happened to Dan Stevens. And he is British. Like Stevens, MacLaine had her moment in the sun, when her character saved a disastrous dinner party-in-the-making by transforming it into a cocktail party in Episode Two.

Poor Brendan Coyle and Joanne Foggett were saddled with the long and tedious story line surrounding Bates’ time in prison and his wife Anna’s efforts to exonerate. Every time that particular plot appeared on the screen, I found myself forced to press the Fast-Forward button of my DVD remote control. When Bates finally left prison, he and Anna proved that their romance had become incredibly dull by three seasons. And could someone explain why the Crawleys suddenly believed that Sir Anthony Strallan was too old for middle daughter, Lady Edith Crawley. They certainly felt differently six years ago in Series One, as they considered him as a potential mate for both Lady Edith and Lady Mary. And I find it hard to believe that an arm damaged by the war would turn him into an unwanted son-in-law. I find that too ridiculous to believe. And when Lady Edith found love again, she discovered that the object of her desire – a magazine editor named Michael Gregson – was a married man. And he could not get a divorce, because his wife was mentally handicapped and living in an asylum. In other words, Fellowes had to borrow from Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre” to make this story interesting. Unfortunately, I did not find the circumstances of Gregson’s marriage interesting. Merely unoriginal.

I could go on about the numerous problems I encountered in Series Three. Believe me, I found more. Among them are the number of story lines that Fellowes introduced and dropped during this season. I have already discussed how he ended a potential estrangement between Lord and Lady Grantham before it could get into full swing. Other dropped story lines included:

*Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare
*Mrs. Patmore’s relationship with a new shopkeeper
*A potential romance between Isobel Crawley and Dr. Clarkson
*Tom and Lady Sybil Branson in Ireland, which was never explored
*Tom Branson’s revolutionary beliefs nipped in the bud

I noticed that “DOWNTON ABBEY” recently received several Emmy nominations – including one for Best Drama. Best Drama? I was disgusted when I heard the news. My disgust did not stem from any dislike of the show. “DOWNTON ABBEY” may be flawed, but it is still entertaining. But I believe it is not good enough to be considered for a Best Drama Emmy nomination. Even worse, a far superior series like FX’s “THE AMERICANS” was overlooked for the same category. Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY” had some good moments – especially Episode Five, which featured the death of Lady Sybil Branson. And I found it slightly better than Series Two. But the series remains a ghost of its former self. It still failed to reach the same level of quality of Series One. And even that was not perfect.

JANE AUSTEN’s Rogue Gallery

Below is a look at the fictional rogues – male and female – created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . . 

 

JANE AUSTEN’S ROGUE GALLERY

   

John Willoughby – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

John Willoughby is a handsome young single man with a small estate, but has expectations of inheriting his aunt’s large estate. Also, Willoughby driven by the his own pleasures, whether amusing himself with whatever woman crossed his path, or via marrying in order to obtain wealth to fuel his profligate ways. He does not value emotional connection and is willing to give up Marianne Dashwood, his true love, for more worldly objects. Although not my favorite rogue, I feel that Willoughby is Austen’s most successful rogue, because he was able to feel remorse and regret for his rejection of Marianne by the end of the story. This makes him one of Austen’s most complex rogues. Here are the actors that portrayed John Willoughby:

1. Clive Francis (1971) – I must admit that I did not find him particularly memorable as Willoughby. In fact, my memories of his performance is very vague.

2. Peter Woodward (1981) – I first became aware of Woodward during his brief stint on the sci-fi series, “CRUSADE”. He was also slightly memorable as Willoughby, although I did not find his take on the character as particularly roguish. His last scene may have been a bit hammy, but otherwise, I found him tolerable.

3. Greg Wise (1995) – He was the first actor I saw portray Willoughby . . . and he remains my favorite. His Willoughby was both dashing and a little bit cruel. And I loved that he managed to conveyed the character’s regret over rejecting Marianne without any dialogue whatsoever.

4. Dominic Cooper (2008) – Many television critics made a big deal about his portrayal of Willoughby, but I honestly did not see the magic. However, I must admit that he gave a pretty good performance, even if his Willoughby came off as a bit insidious at times.

   

George Wickham – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

George Wickham is an old childhood friend of hero Fitzwilliam Darcy and the son of the Darcy family’s steward, whose dissipate ways estranged the pair. He is introduced into the story as a handsome and superficially charming commissioned militia officer in Meryton, who quickly charms and befriends the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, after learning of her dislike of Darcy. Wickham manages to charm the entire Meryton neighborhood, before they realize that they have a snake in their midst. Elizabeth eventually learns of Wickham’s attempt to elope with the young Georgiana Darcy. Unfortunately, he manages to do the same with her younger sister, Lydia, endangering the Bennet family’s reputation. He could have been the best of Austen’s rogues, if it were not for his stupid decision to elope with Lydia, a young woman whose family would be unable to provide him with a well-endowed dowry. Because I certainly cannot see him choosing him as a traveling bed mate, while he evade creditors. Here are the actors that portrayed George Wickham:

1. Edward Ashley-Cooper (1940) – This Australian actor was surprisingly effective as the smooth talking Wickham. He was handsome, charming, witty and insidious. I am surprised that his portrayal is not that well known.

2. Peter Settelen (1980) – He made a charming Wickham, but his performance came off as a bit too jovial for me to take him seriously as a rogue.

3. Adrian Lukis (1995) – His Wickham is, without a doubt, is my favorite take on the character. He is not as handsome as the other actors who have portrayed the role; but he conveyed all of the character’s attributes with sheer perfection.

4. Rupert Friend (2005) – I think that he was hampered by director Joe Wright’s script and failed to become an effective Wickham. In fact, I found his portrayal almost a waste of time.

  

Henry Crawford – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

I think that one of the reasons I have such difficulties in enjoying “MANSFIELD PARK” is that I found Austen’s portrayal of the roguish Henry Crawford rather uneven. He is originally portrayed as a ladies’ man who takes pleasure in seducing women. But after courting heroine Fanny Price, he falls genuinely in love with her and successfully manages to mend his ways. But Fanny’s rejection of him (due to her love of cousin Edmund Bertram) lead him to begin an affair with Edmund’s sister, Maria Rushworth and is labeled permanently by Austen as a reprobate. This entire storyline failed to alienate me toward Henry. I just felt sorry for him, because Fanny was not honest enough to reveal why she had rejected him. Here are the actors that portrayed Henry Crawford:

1. Robert Burbage (1983) – As I had stated in a review of the 1983 miniseries, I thought his take on Henry Crawford reminded me of an earnest schoolboy trying to act like a seducer. Sorry, but I was not impressed.

2. Alessandro Nivola (1999) – In my opinion, his portrayal of Henry was the best. He managed to convey the seductive qualities of the character, his gradual transformation into an earnest lover and the anger he felt at being rejected. Superb performance.

3. Joseph Beattie (2007) – His performance was pretty solid and convincing. However, there were a few moments when his Henry felt more like a stalker than a seducer. But in the end, he gave a pretty good performance.

  

Mary Crawford – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Ah yes! Mary Crawford. I never could understand why Jane Austen eventually painted her as a villainess (or semi-villainess) in “MANSFIELD PARK”. As the sister of Henry Crawford, she shared his tastes for urbane airs, tastes, wit (both tasteful and ribald) and an interest in courtship. She also took an unexpected shine to the shy Fanny Price, while falling in love with the likes of Edmund Bertram. However, Edmund planned to become a clergyman, something she could not abide. Mary was not perfect. She could be superficial at times and a bit too manipulative for her own good. If I must be honest, she reminds me too much of Dolly Levi, instead of a woman of low morals. Here are the actresses who portrayed Mary Crawford:

1. Jackie Smith-Wood (1983) – She gave a delightful and complex performance as Mary Crawford. I practically found myself wishing that “MANSFIELD PARK” had been a completely different story, with her as the heroine. Oh well. We cannot have everything.

2. Embeth Davidtz (1999) – Her portrayal of Mary was just as delightful and complex as Smith-Wood. Unfortunately for the actress, writer-director Patricia Rozema wrote a scene that featured a ridiculous and heavy-handed downfall for Mary. Despite that, she was still superb and held her own against Frances O’Connor’s more livelier Fanny.

3. Hayley Atwell (2007) – After seeing her performance as Mary, I began to suspect that any actress worth her salt can do wonders with the role. This actress was one of the bright spots in the 2007 lowly regarded version of Austen’s novel. Mind you, her portrayal was a little darker than the other two, but I still enjoyed her portrayal.

   

Frank Churchill – “Emma” (1815)

Frank Churchill was the son of one of Emma Woodhouse’s neighbors by a previous marriage. He was an amiable young man whom everyone, except Mr. George Knightley, who considered him quite immature. After his mother’s death he was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle, whose last name he took. Frank may be viewed simply as careless, shallow, and little bit cruel in his mock disregard for his real fiancee, Jane Fairfax. But I find it difficult to view him as a villain. Here are the actors who portrayed Frank Churchill:

1. Robert East (1972) – It is hard to believe that this actor was 39-40 years old, when he portrayed Frank Churchill in this miniseries. He did a pretty good job, but there were a few moments when his performance seemed a bit uneven.

2. Ewan McGregor (1996) – He did a pretty good job, but his performance was hampered by Douglas McGrath’s script, which only focused upon Frank’s efforts to hide his engagement to Jane Fairfax.

3. Raymond Coulthard (1996-97) – In my opinion, he gave the best performance as Frank. The actor captured all of the character’s charm, humor, and perversity on a very subtle level.

4. Rupert Evans (2009) – He was pretty good as Frank, but there were times when his performance became a little heavy-handed, especially in later scenes that featured Frank’s frustrations in hiding his engagement to Jane Fairfax.

 

John Thorpe – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I would view John Thorpe as Jane Austen’s least successful rogue. I do not if I could even call him a rogue. He seemed so coarse, ill-mannered and not very bright. With his flashy wardrobe and penchant for mild profanity, I have doubts that he could attract any female, including one that was desperate for a husband. And his joke on Catherine Moreland seemed so . . . unnecessary. Here are the actors that portrayed John Thorpe:

1. Jonathan Coy (1986) – He basically did a good job with the character he was given. Although there were moments when his John Thorpe seemed more like an abusive stalker than the loser he truly was.

2. William Beck (2007) – I admit that physically, he looks a little creepy. But the actor did a first-rate job in portraying Thorpe as the crude loser he was portrayed in Austen’s novel.

 

Isabella Thorpe – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

The lovely Isabella Thorpe was a different kettle of fish than her brother. She had ten times the charms and probably the brains. Her problem was that her libido brought her down the moment she clapped eyes on Captain Frederick Tilney. And this is what ended her friendship with heroine Catherine Moreland, considering that she was engaged to the latter’s brother. Here are the actresses who portrayed Isabella Thorpe:

1. Cassie Stuart (1986) – She did a pretty good job as Isabella, even if there were moments when she came off as a bit . . . well, theatrical. I only wish that the one of the crew had taken it easy with her makeup.

2. Carey Mulligan (2007) – She gave a first-rate performance as Isabella, conveying all of the character’s charm, intelligence and weaknesses. It was a very good performance.

  

William Elliot – “Persuasion” (1818)

William Elliot is a cousin of heroine Anne Elliot and the heir presumptive of her father, Sir Walter. He became etranged from the family when he wed a woman of much lower social rank, for her fortune. Sir Walter and Elizabeth had hoped William would marry the latter. After becoming a widower, he mended his relationship with the Elliots and attempted to court Anne in the hopes of inheriting the Elliot baronetcy and ensuring that Sir Walter never marries Mrs. Penelope Clay, Elizabeth Elliot’s companion. He was an interesting character, but his agenda regarding Sir Walter’s title and estates struck me as irrelevant. Sir Walter could have easily found another woman to marry and conceive a male heir.“PERSUASION” could have been a better story without a rogue/villain. Here are the actors that portrayed William Elliot:

1. David Savile (1971) – He made a pretty good William Elliot. However, there were times when his character switched from a jovial personality to a seductive one in an uneven manner.

2. Samuel West (1995) – His portrayal of William Elliot is probably the best I have ever seen. He conveyed all aspects of William’s character – both the good and bad – with seamless skill. My only problem with his characterization is that the screenwriter made his William financial broke. And instead of finding another rich wife, this William tries to court Anne to keep a close eye on Sir Walter and Mrs. Clay. Ridiculous.

3. Tobias Menzies (2007) – I found his portrayal of William Elliot to be a mixed affair. There were moments that his performance seemed pretty good. Unfortunately, there were more wooden moments from the actor than decent ones.

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (1986) Review

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (1986) Review

Most movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels are either highly acclaimed or perhaps even liked by fans and critics alike. I can only think of two or three adaptations that have been dismissed them. And one of them happened to be the 1986 A&E Network/BBC adaptation of Austen’s 1817 novel, “Northanger Abbey”

Adapted by Maggie Wadey, “NORTHANGER ABBEY” follows the experiences of seventeen-year-old Gothic novel aficionado, Catherine Morland, who is invited by her parents’ friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, to accompany them on a visit to Bath, England. This is Catherine’s first visit to Bath and there she makes new acquaintances such as Isabella Thorpe and the latter’s crude brother, John. She also becomes friends with the charming and quick-witted clergyman Henry Tilney and his sweet-tempered sister, Eleanor. While Catherine’s brother James courts Isabella, she finds herself becoming the romantic target of the ill-mannered John. Fortunately for Catherine, she becomes romantically captivated by Henry Tilney, who seemed to have fallen for her, as well . . . much to the displeasure of the Thorpes. Eventually, Henry and Eleanor’s father, General Tilney, invites Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey. Because of her penchant for Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novel, “The Mysteries of Udolpho”, Catherine expects the Tilney estate to be filled with Gothic horrors and family mysteries. Instead, Catherine ends up learning a few lessons about life.

Personally, I do not consider the 1817 novel to be one of Austen’s best. It has always seemed . . . not fully complete to me. I never understood why the Thorpes actually believed that the Morlands were wealthy, considering John’s longer acquaintance with Catherine’s brother, James. And why did John tell General Tilney that Cathrine’s family was wealthy in the first place? For revenge? His actions only encouraged the general to invite Catherine to Northanger Abbey. But I digress. This article is not a criticism of Austen’s novel, but my view on this first movie adaptation. And how do I feel about “NORTHANGER ABBEY”? Well . . . it was interesting.

There are aspects of “NORTHANGER ABBEY” that I liked. First of all, director Giles Foster had a first rate cast to work with. I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and solid performances. Both Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth gave first-rate performances as the two leads, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. Now, I realize that many Austen fans had a problem with Firth’s characterization of Henry. And they are not alone. But I cannot deny that he did a great job with the material given to him. Best of all, not only did Schlesinger and Firth have great screen chemistry, but also exchanged one of the best kisses I have ever seen in an Austen adaptation. But if I must be honest, there was not a performance that failed to impress me. The entire cast were excellent, especially Robert Hardy as Henry’s perfidious father, General Tilney; Cassie Stuart as Isabella Thorpe; Ingrid Lacey as Eleanor Tilney; and Jonathan Coy as the vulgar John Thorpe.

Watching “NORTHANGER ABBEY”, it occurred to me that its production values were superb. Truly. I noticed that the movie seemed to be set in the late 1790s – the period in which Austen first wrote the novel, instead of the late Regency era (when it was officially published). Cecilia Brereton really did justice in re-creating Bath in the late 1790s. My two favorite scenes – from an ascetic point-of-view – featured Catherine’s meetings with the Thorpes and Eleanor Tilney at the city’s Roman Baths; and the two assembly balls. Nicholas Rocker did a superb job in designing the movie’s colorful costumes. In fact, I adored them. The costumes, the hairstyles and even the makeup designed by Joan Stribling beautifully reflected the movie’s setting.

Now that I have waxed lyrical over “NORTHANGER ABBEY”, it is time for me to tear it down. Despite some of the movie’s more positive aspects, I can honestly say that I do not like this film. I almost dislike it. There were too much about it that turned me off. Surprisingly, one of those aspects was the characterization of Henry Tilney. The novel had hinted a witty and playful man with a wicked sense of humor. The sense of humor remained, but Henry’s condescending manner toward Catherine and penchant for lectures really turned me off. I cannot blame Peter Firth. I do blame Maggie Wadey for transforming Henry from a man with a wicked sense of humor, to a slightly humorous, yet ponderous character. And why did Wadey transform the vulgar John Thorpe into a borderline stalker? Honestly, the way he eyed Catherine whenever Henry was in her midst made me believe he would be a first-class serial killer. I also believe that Wadey went too far in her characterization of General Tilney. Instead of being a stern and rigid tyrant, the general became an aging and mercenary Lothario, whose dissipation depleted the family’s income. Artistic close-ups of Robert Hardy’s face wearing a salacious expression did not help matters. To reinforce General Tilney’s dissipation, Wadey included a character called the Marchioness, an aristocratic refugee of the French Revolution who has become his mistress. Personally, I found her addition to the cast of characters to be irrelevant.

And the problems continued to roll. The main house of the Tilneys’ estate is supposed to be an abbey, not a castle. Why on earth did the production designer and the producers choose Bodiam Castle as the location for the fictional Northanger Abbey? The scenes featuring Catherine’s vivid and “Gothic” imagination struck me as unnecessarily long and rather off-putting. I felt as if I had stumbled across a horror movie, instead of a Jane Austen adaptation. Also, Catherine’s friendship with Isabella seemed to have been given the short-shrift. Quite frankly, I do not think it was developed very well. Wadey had a chance to clean up some of the flaws in Austen’s novel – namely the Thorpes’ interest in Catherine and the trick that John Thorpe played on General Tilney about the Morelands’ wealth or lack of it. And why did Wadey include that minor sequence featuring the Tilneys’ young black slave? All the kid did was lure Catherine outside to the estate’s lawn in order to impress her with his gymnastic skills. And for what? I am trying to think of a witty comment to express my contempt for this scene. All I can do is shake my head and wonder what the hell was Wadey thinking.

Who was responsible for hiring Ilona Sekacz to compose the movie’s score? I wish I could compliment Ms. Sekacz’s work. I would if it had served as the score for an episode of “MIAMI VICE”, a soft porn movie, or some other television series or movie from the 1980s. Sofia Coppola used early 1980s pop music to serve as the score for her 2006 movie, “MARIE ANTOINETTE”. Surprisingly, it worked. I think it worked because Coppola utilized the right song for the right scene. But Sekacz’s score, which featured a strange mixture of new age and period music, night club jazz, and synthesizers, was never utilized properly. Or perhaps I simply found the music too strange or off-putting for me to appreciate it. It certainly did not blend well with the actual movie released on American and British television.

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” has some aspects that prevents me to viewing it as a total write-off. It does feature some first-rate performances – especially from leads Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth – and I adore both Cecilia Brereton’s production designs and Nicholas Rocker’s costumes. But the movie has too many flaws, including an unpalatable score and some very questionable characterizations, for me to consider it a first-class, let alone a decent adaptation of Austen’s novel. This is one movie that I will not be watching with any regularity.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series One (2010) Retrospective

The announcement of ITV’s new series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie,“GOSFORD PARK”. And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation. 

Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, “DOWNTON ABBEY” was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” and “GOSFORD PARK”(which had a murder mystery attached to it). “DOWNTON ABBEY” had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.

Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.

The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.

I believe that “DOWNTON ABBEY” certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that “DOWNTON ABBEY” is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and“GOSFORD PARK” seemed to prove.

Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas’ sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.

Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.

The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as aswot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.

For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.

As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in “GOSFORD PARK” – namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean . . . and deservedly. Despite some of its flaws, it was a well made and well written television series. This first series allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Now that war was declared in the seventh episode, I look forward to seeing how the series will handle the Crawleys and their servants’ experiences during the war. But if Series Two will cover World War I, does this mean that “DOWNTON ABBEY” will continue on into the period between the world wars – the same period now being covered by the recently updated“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”? I guess we will have to wait and see.