“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.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review

To my knowledge, there have been at least ten screen (film and/or television) adaptations of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”. I believe it has been adapted more times than her other five novels. This is not surprising. It is probably the most beloved of her six novels. I have seen four of those adaptations, myself. And one of them is director-writer Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” starred Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The story focuses on Elizabeth’s dealings with marriage, manners and other issues in the landed gentry society of late Georgian England. Elizabeth and her four sisters are encouraged by their mother to find a suitable husband before their father’s estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. The Bennet family is heartened by the blossoming romance between Elizabeth’s older sister Jane and a wealthy bachelor named Charles Bingley, who has rented a neighboring estate. But the family are unaware that Mr. Bingley’s even wealthier friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, has grown attracted to the extroverted Elizabeth. However, obstacles block the path of true love. Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s snobbish sister Caroline disapprove of his romance with Jane, due to the poor behavior of Mrs. Bennet and her three youngest daughters. And Elizabeth has developed a deep dislike of Mr. Darcy, due to his own distant and haughty behavior. Through a series of setbacks and misunderstandings, true love finally flourishes in the end.

Wright’s adaptation of Austen’s novel was a box office hit and earned numerous award nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for star Keira Knightley. But like the 1940 adaptation with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, this 2005 film has attracted a great deal of criticism from Austen fans for its failure to be closely faithful to the novel. Many have complained how Wright changed the dynamics within the Bennet family. Others have complained by the less than sterile appearance of the Bennet estate and the movie’s late 18th century. As far as many readers were concerned, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” should have been set between 1811 and 1820 – Britain’s Regency era, since the novel was published in 1813. So, how did I feel about Wright’s take on Austen’s novel?

I might as well be frank. I did have problems with “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. I could have understood Wright’s decision to portray the Bennet household with a less than pristine appearance. The Bennet manor was not the first to be portray in this style. The Western home in 1963’s “TOM JONES” looked a lot messier. But Squire Western lived on the estate by himself, until the arrival of his daughter Sophie and his sister Aunt Western. Mrs. Bennet managed the family estate in Wright’s movie. One would think she and the house servants would be able to keep a cleaner home. And I was not that impressed by most of the costumes worn by the Bennets. I found them rather plain and worn for an upper class family from the landed gentry. Mind you, they did not have the same amount of money as Mr. Darcy or the Bingleys. Except for the Netherfield ball sequence, their costumes seemed to hint that they barely possessed enough money to scratch out a living. Yet, at the same time, they had both house and field servants?

I was not impressed by the change of dynamics between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. They seemed a bit too affectionate in comparison to their portrayals in other movies. Wright’s decision to make this change seemed to defeat the purpose of Austen’s narrative. He forgot that the incompatible marriage between the well-born, yet caustic Mr. Bennet and the middle-class and boorish Mrs. Bennet was one of the major reasons that led youngest daughter Lydia to leave Brighton with the roguish George Wickham. Mrs. Bennet’s shrill manners and obsession with matrimony for her daughters, and Mr. Bennet’s cynical disregard for his wife and society led to their failure to discipline their youngest daughters – Lydia and Kitty. But we never see this in Wright’s film. He had every right to justify Mrs. Bennet’s search for future sons-in-law. But the affection between her and Mr. Bennet makes it difficult to explain their failure to discipline Lydia and Kitty.

I also had a problem with George Wickham. I felt sorry for Rupert Friend. He is a very good actor who was handed a role that turned out to be a ghost of its former self in Wright’s screenplay. Friend is also a very handsome actor. But he was really not given the opportunity to display Wickham’s charm and talent for emotional manipulation. Worse, the Elizabeth/Wickham scenes failed to convey any real friendship between the two, before Elizabeth’s discovery of his true nature. They were simply not on screen together long enough to justify Elizabeth’s outrage over Mr. Darcy’s alleged treatment of Wickham. Wright’s treatment of the Charles Bingley character was also a problem for me. I am aware that Mr. Bingley has always sought his friend Mr. Darcy’s approval, regarding the other man as his social superior. But Mr. Bingley has always struck me as a more social and extroverted man. Wright made sure that his Mr. Bingley, portrayed by Simon Woods, was socially active. But he also transformed Bingley into a shy and reticent man. And the idea of a quiet Mr. Darcy and a shy Mr. Bingley as close friends does not quite seem right to me.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect film – at least not in my experience. Yes, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is a flawed movie. But it is not the disaster that some Austen fans would have many to believe. Despite some changes in the characterization and the 129 minutes running time, Austen’s tale remained intact under Wright’s direction and Deborah Moggach’s pen. And a few of the changes made by Wright and Moggach did not bother me one bit. In fact, I found them rather interesting. One change in the movie involved the Elizabeth Bennet character. This “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” delved more into the impact of the Bennet family’s shenanigans upon her psyche with scenes that featured Elizabeth’s brief flight from the crowds of the Netherfield ball, her penchant of keeping personal secrets from her closest sister Jane, and occasional bursts of temper. Many also complained about the film’s late 18th century setting, claiming that Austen’s novel was a Regency tale. I said this in my review of the 1940 adaptation and I will state it again. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had to be set in the 1810s because of its final publishing date. Austen’s tale is not a historical drama, merely a comedy of manners and a romantic tale. Besides, her novel was originally completed some time in the late 1790s – the same time frame as this movie.

Despite my complaints about the plain wardrobe for the Bennet family, I must admit that I was impressed by most of Jacqueline Durran’s costumes – especially for the Netherfield Ball sequence. I felt that the most interesting costume was worn by Kelly Reilly (as Caroline Bingley in the aforementioned sequence:

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Some fans felt that Durran made a misfire in the creation of this particular costume, which they believed evoked the high-waisted fashions of the first two decades of the 19th century. They especially took umbrage at her gown’s lack of sleeves. What they failed to realize was that women’s fashion was in a stage of transition between the late 18th and early 19th century. Older women like Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh wore the older 18th century fashions, while younger females began wearing dresses and gown with a higher waistline. It made sense that Caroline Bingley, being familiar with the more sophisticated London society, would wear such a gown. There is a 1798-99 painting called “Madame Raymond de Verninac” in which the subject wore a similar looking gown:

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Other technical aspects of the movie proved to be a lot less controversial. Roman Osin’s photography provided to be one of the movie’s biggest assets. I found it lush, yet sharp and rich in color. And it certainly did justice to Sarah Greenwood’s production designs and Katie Spencer’s set decorations, which captured the look of Britain at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century beautifully. I especially enjoyed the photography featured in Elizabeth’s journey with her Gardiner relations to Derbyshire. Another segment that displayed Osin’s photography and Greenwood’s work beautifully was the Netherfield Ball. I especially enjoyed the tracking shot that touched upon the behaviors and emotional states of the major characters, before finally settling upon a secluded Elizabeth, heaving a sigh of relief.

Wright had the good luck to find himself with a first-rate cast for his movie. Jena Malone’s Lydia Bennet struck me as more of a show boater or poseur than any other interpretation of the role. Carey Mulligan gave ample support as her slightly older sister and emotional pet, Kitty. Talulah Riley did a very good job in capturing Mary Bennet’s self-righteous nature. Yet, at the same, she was surprisingly poignant – especially during the Netherfield ball sequence. Despite Moggach and Wright’s attempts to paint Mrs. Bennet’s determination to marry off her daughters in a more positive light, Brenda Blethyn still managed to capture the character’s gauche manners and silliness. And for that I am grateful to the actress. Donald Sutherland’s take on Mr. Bennet seemed less cynical than Austen’s take on the character. Thanks to Moggach’s script, Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet almost loses his bite. But not completely. Sutherland managed to retain some of the character’s sardonic humor. And I really enjoyed his performance in the scene that featured Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth’s discussion about her feelings for Mr. Darcy.

Despite my complaints about the characterizations of Charles Bingley and George Wickham, I cannot deny that both Simon Woods and Rupert Friend gave first-rate performances. However, I suspect that Woods was given more to work with, even if Moggach’s portrayal of his character struck a wrong note within me. There is an interesting post-script regarding Woods’ casting – he was Rosamund Pike’s (Jane Bennet) ex-boyfriend, when they filmed “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” together. The movie featured only one of Mr. Bingley’s sisters – namely the gold-digging Caroline Bingley. Kelly Reilly’s take on the role strongly reminds me of Frieda Inescort’s performance in the 1940 movie – cool and sarcastic. Reilly had some choice lines, my favorite being her comment about her brother’s guests at the Netherfield Ball:

“I can’t help thinking that at some point someone is going to produce a piglet and we’ll all have to chase it.”

Yes, I realize that Jane Austen did not write it. But who cares? It is such a droll line, even if it was spoken by the unspeakable Caroline. I read somewhere that Joe Wright had convinced Judi Dench to portray Lady Catherine de Bourgh, claiming that he loved it when she “played a bitch”. And yes . . . Dench’s Lady Catherine was deliciously bitchy. On the other hand, Claudie Blakely gave a nice performance as Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas. She also had one memorable moment in which her character tried to explain her decision to marry William Collins, Elizabeth’s unpalatable cousin. “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” marked the first time Keira Knightley worked with Tom Hollander. His Mr. Collins did not strike me as obsequious as previous versions. For some reason, Hollander reminded me of a socially awkward geek. The scene featuring Mr. Collins’ attempt to get Mr. Darcy’s attention struck me as particularly funny. Penelope Wilton and Peter Wight gave solid performances as Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. But I did not find them particularly memorable. Rosamund Pike made a very beautiful and charming Jane Bennet. She perfectly conveyed the character’s shyness and penchant for thinking too good of others.

Matthew MacFadyen was not that well known to U.S. audiences when he was cast in the role of Mr. Darcy. I realize that I am going to attract a good deal of flak for this, but I am glad that MacFadyen did not try to recapture Colin Firth’s take on the role. An actor or actress should never try to copy another’s performance. Frankly, I thought MacFadyen did a fine job on his own. He is the only actor to openly convey Mr. Darcy’s inability to easily socialize before the story’s second half, due to some silent acting on his part. I especially enjoyed his performance with Knightley featuring Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal. But Keira Knightley, as Elizabeth Bennet, contributed just as much to the scene as he did. For some reason, the actress has attracted a great deal of bashing from moviegoers. I will not try to determine the reason behind their behavior. But I will compliment Knightley for her performance. Like the other actresses who have portrayed Elizabeth, she conveyed all of the character’s wit, prejudices and exuberant nature. But thanks to Moggach’s screenplay, Knightley was given a chance to put a new spin on Elizabeth’s character. Due to the Bennet family’s behavior, Knightley was able to convey Elizabeth’s increasing emotional distance from them. Many critics did not care for this new spin on the character. I, on the other hand, found it fascinating and new.

Joe Wright’s “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its flaws. There is no denying it. But I can say the same for the other three adaptations of Jane Austen’s novel that I have seen. For me, the movie’s virtues outweighed its flaws. And its biggest virtues were Roman Osin’s photography and a memorable cast led by the talented Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. This was Joe Wright’s first film and so far, my favorite he has done during his seven years as a director.

“The Wrong Class”

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“THE WRONG CLASS”

After two seasons of viewing Britain’s ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, it occurred to me that there was something off about Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of one of the major characters. That character is Matthew Crawley. And it is an error that I am surprised Fellowes had made. 

“DOWNTON ABBEY” began with news of the sinking of the White Star liner, the R.M.S. Titanic in April 1912. This famous event also caused the deaths of James and Patrick Crawley, the heirs presumptive to the Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. This disruption in the line for the Grantham earldom forced Lord Grantham to seek his next heir, due to the fact that the title and estates only pass to male Crawleys and not to any of his three daughters. Lord Grantham’s new heir turns out to be his third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley.

Introduced at the end of the series’ first episode, Matthew is a solicitor from Manchester, who lives with his widowed mother, former nurse Mrs. Isobel Crawley. When he receives word that he is to be the Earl of Grantham’s new heir, Matthew does not seem particular pleased. He is very reluctant to accept Lord Grantham’s invitation to move to Downton Abbey and become part of the community. Matthew is only willing to do so, only if he can continue his legal work. Members of the Crawley family such as eldest daughter Lady Mary and her grandmother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; along with servants such as butler Charles Carson seem to confirm Matthew’s worst opinions about life among the aristocracy. This hostility is especially apparent in his early relationship with Lady Mary and his reaction to acquiring a new valet/butler for his and Isobel’s residence, the Crawley House. Through Matthew’s first encounters with his Crawley cousins and Molesley, his new valet/butler; series creator Julian Fellowes emphasized Matthew’s social status as a member of the middle-class. And while the majority of the series’ fans and media seemed to accept this view, I find it hard to believe and accept.

These same viewers and the media seemed to believe that class structure and status in Edwardian Britain – especially for the upper classes – depends upon the size of an individual’s bank account. I am afraid that they would be wrong. Class was viewed differently than it is today. During the era of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, an individual’s social status was determined by “bloodline”, not the amount of money one possessed. This was especially true for members of the upper classes. To be a member of the upper class, one has to be part of a family that has owned land in the form of country estates for several generations. The owner of that estate was only required to in an administrative capacity and required tenant farms to earn an income. In other words, that person would be a member of the landed gentry. When an individual also has a title courtesy of royalty, he or she is considered an aristocrat. And his or her family members are also considered aristocrats . . . including cousins.

Despite being born in a middle-class environment and practicing a profession that society would view as an example of that particular class, Matthew Crawley has been a member of Britain’s upper class since birth. More importantly, as third cousin once removed and heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham, he is also a member of the aristocracy, despite his upbringing. In fact, one can say the same about his late father, Dr. Reginald Crawley. Becoming a physician, marrying a woman from the middle-class and living in that existence did not change Dr. Crawley’s social status – something that he passed to his son, Matthew.

If the Matthew had been born out of wedlock, he would have genuinely been part of the middle-class. If his mother Isobel had been a member of Britain’s landed gentry or aristocracy instead of Dr. Crawley, Fellowes would have been correct to label Matthew as middle-class. This fate certainly awaits Lady Sybil and Tom Bronson’s new child . . . that is, if Tom manages to become a successful journalist. The Bronsons’ new child will certainly be regarded as someone from a lower class by those from the Crawleys’ social circle.

Why did Julian Fellowes label Matthew as a member of the middle-class in his script? AS a member of the upper class and a peer, he should have known better. Has he, like many others today, developed the habit of judging class solely plutocracy . . . mere wealth? That would have worked if “DOWNTON ABBEY” was set in the present time. But the series is set during a period in Britain in which class was still judged by bloodline, not the size of a bank account.

To label Matthew Crawley as a middle-class man, due to the environment in which he was raised . . . and despite his legitimate blood connections to the aristocratic Crawleys was a mistake. It is not a mistake that will have major consequences on the series’ storylines. In fact, it is not a major mistake period. But I cannot help but feel amused whenever someone erroneously label Matthew as a member of the middle-class.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Two (2011) Retrospective

 

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Two (2011) Retrospective

The debut of Julian Fellowes’ series about an aristocratic family during the last few years before the outbreak of World War I garnered a great deal acclaim and awards, earlier this year. The success of the series led the ITV and Fellowes to continue the saga of the Earl of Grantham, his family and servants in a new season.

Series Two of “DOWNTON ABBEY” covered the last two years of World War I and the first year of peace during the years 1916 to 1919. Episode One began with Matthew Crawley, the heir presumptive for the Earl of Grantham enduring the last days of the Somme Offensive in November 1916. The story immediately shifted toward the personal dramas that unfolded over eight to nine episodes.

Last season focused upon the entail issue that prevented Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham from bequeathing his title or any of his fortune to his three daughters – Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil Crawley and forced him to accept Matthew Crawley, a third cousin raised as a middle-class cousin as his heir. Season Two focused upon the Crawleys’ attempts to adjust to the changes caused by the war, their love lives and the impact of the war upon their servants.

One of the main subplots introduced in this season’s first episode turned out to be Matthew’s engagement to Lavinia Swire, the daughter of a London solicitor. Most of the family and servants like Mr. Carson oppose Matthew’s engagement to Lavinia, due to her status as a member of the middle-class and her position as an impediment to a reconciliation between Matthew and the family’s elder daughter, Lady Mary. The youngest Crawley daughter, Lady Sybil, becomes a wartime nurse and faces a growing attraction to the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Tom Branson. Meanwhile, middle daughter Lady Edith learns how to drive and later, becomes a nurse’s aide. Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham embarks on a campaign to ensure Matthew and Lady Mary’s engagement. Meanwhile, the scandal from her Season One encounter with Turkish diplomat, Kamal Pamuk, threatens to rear its ugly head for Lady Mary. She seeks help from Sir Richard Carlisle, a suitor, to nip the scandal in the bud. But he exacts a price from her, for his help – an official engagement to marry. Cora, Countess of Grantham and Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, transform Downton Abbey into a convalescent hospital for Army officers. The two become involved in a power struggle before Lady Grantham assumes full control. Only Lord Grantham spends the rest of the war with nothing to do and sinks into a depression over his inactivity.

Most of the servants continue their household duties at Downton Abbey. Just as valet John Bates announces his intentions to divorce his wife to lady love and head housemaid Anna Smith, his wife Vera make the first of a few visits. Her threat to expose Lady Mary’s Season One tryst with the dead Turkish diplomat, Mr. Kemal Pamuk, forces Bates to give up his position as Lord Grantham’s valet and return to her. After being needled for being out of uniform, footman William Mason caves in and joins the Army. His decision eventually has an impact on Daisy, the scullery maid for whom he harbors unrequited love. Both the cook Mrs. Patmore and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, pressures Daisy into becoming William’s fiancé before he leaves for the war front in Episode Three. And when William returns to Downton Abbey, mortally wounded, Mrs. Patmore coerces Daisy into marrying him out of pity, leaving a bad taste in the scullery maid’s mouth. After the trick she had pulled that cause Lady Grantham to miscarry in Season One, lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien becomes increasingly devoted to her mistress. Yet, she continues to go out of her way to make life miserable for Mr. Bates, by communicating with his wife. Downton Abbey’s new housemaid, Ethel Parks, becomes involved with one of the patients at the Crawleys’ convalescent hospital, which results in a baby for her. She seeks help from Mrs. Hughes to contact the officer’s parents for financial assistance. Former footman Thomas Barrow started out the season as a medic in France. But the horrors of war drives him to deliberately expose his hand to gunfire in order to permanently leave the front. He eventually becomes a medic at the local hospital near the Crawley estate and later, as an aide at the Crawleys’ convalescent hospital.

I just learned that “DOWNTON ABBEY” recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most critically acclaimed English-language television show” for 2011, becoming the first co-produced U.S./British show to be recognised as such by the Guinness Book of Records. One, I did not know that “DOWNTON ABBEY” was co-produced in both Great Britain and the U.S. And two, as much as I enjoy the series, I am beginning to feel that a good deal of its acclaim might be undeserved.

One might assume that I dislike “DOWNTON ABBEY”. On the contrary, I like it very much. I became a big fan of the series when its first season aired. But I also noticed certain flaws in Julian Fellowes’ depiction of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants that continued to both flourish and increase in Season Two. There were aspects of Season Two that I admired. The cast, led by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern continued to give first-rate performances. Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith’s performances seemed to stand out with most fans and critics. I cannot say that I agree with them. I suspect that Fellowes’ detailed attention to Dockery’s character and Smith’s witty one-liners made them more popular than the other characters. The series’ early 20th century costumes remained exquisite as ever, thanks to Susannah Buxton and Rosalind Ebbutt’s designs. And aside from the few combat sequences, the series’ production values and designs continued to be top-notch.

The second season of “DOWNTON ABBEY” provided some truly memorable moments. The Spanish Flu sequence in Episode Eight impressed me, with the exception of how the epidemic claimed its only victim. People might find this surprising, but I have always enjoyed Laura Carmichael’s portrayal of middle daughter, Lady Edith. She was never a villainess to me even back in Season One. I understood her problems. However, I was happy to see that her character developed further when she finally overcame her resentment toward older sister, Lady Mary. I also enjoyed watching the experiences of former footman Thomas Barrow in the season’s first two episodes. The scenes featuring his combat experiences in France and his work with Dr. Clarkson and Lady Sybil Crawley at the village hospital really impressed me. One other character that made Season Two bearable for me, turned out to be Mrs. Hughes, the family’s housekeeper. Her down-to-earth nature, along with her efforts to help housemaid Ethel Parks and her comments about Lady Mary pretty much anchored the season for me.

Unfortunately . . . when it came to Season Two, the bad outweighed the good. One of my complaints about Season One was that the only characters that seemed to display any real complexity were members of the aristocratic Crawley family. Aside from a few scenes, most of the servants continued to be portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. In Julian Fellowes’ world (without Robert Altman and Bob Balaban looking over his shoulders), the only good working-class character was one loyal to his or her employer.

From the moment she was introduced arrogantly proclaiming her desire for a life outside of service, Ethel Parks was doomed. Unlike Gwen Dawson from Season One, she did not seek or acquire the help from a Crawley to rise in the world. She slept with an officer and paid the price with a baby and unemployment. Fellowes seemed to have ceased portraying former footman Thomas as a one-note villain and portray him in a more sympathetic light in the season’s first two episodes. By the time Thomas returned to Downton Abbey as a medic at the estate’s convalescent hospital, the former footman returned to his usual sneers and sharp comments. Only he did so, standing in the doorway or sitting at the servants’ table, sneering. And when he tried to earn enough money through the black market to start his own business at the end of the war, he discovered that he had been swindled. Thomas was forced to seek work at Downton Abbey again. I cannot help but wonder if he would have been more successful if he had sought the “noble” help of Lord Grantham or some other member of the Crawley family.

The subplot involving Daisy, William and Mrs. Patmore disgusted me. Period. I found it bad enough that Mrs. Patmore bullied and cajoled Daisy into a deception by becoming William’s fiancée and later, his wife. In the “Christmas Special”, Fellowes decided to condone Mrs. Patmore’s bullying by allowing Daisy to form some kind of relationship with William’s dad. It was sickening to watch and I cannot believe that Fellowes would actually finish a subplot on this note, because many of the fans wanted Daisy to be in love with William. Mr. Carson remained ridiculously loyal to the Crawleys and more importantly, to Lady Mary. In fact, his loyalty led him to consistently make insulting and snobbish remarks about Matthew’s middle-class fiancée, Lavinia. Anyone could have perceived this as part of Fellowes’ efforts to portray Mr. Carson in an ambiguous light. Unfortunately, Fellowes’ one-dimensional portrayal of Lavinia as a dull “goody-goody” have led many fans to embrace Mr. Carson’s disapproval of her. On the other hand, Fellowes did an excellent job in assassinating the family’s radical chauffeur, Tom Branson. His friendship with Lady Sybil had created a shipper’s following by the end of Season One. But once Fellowes ridiculed Branson’s radicial beliefs in two scenes – his plan to embarrass a visiting British Army general, which backfired; and his casual dismissal of the Romanovs – he became one of the most disliked characters of Season Two. And many fans expressed disapproval when Lady Sybil began to hint some kind of attraction toward him, claiming that their relationship lacked any chemistry. The hypocrisy toward Branson, generated by Fellowes’ conservatism, was astounding to witness. Even Sarah O’Brien did not fare well. Although she became more loyal toward the Countess of Grantham following the latter’s miscarriage in Season One, O’Brien continued her hostility toward John Bates even when Thomas lost interest in the valet. And the reason behind O’Brien’s hostility remained consistently vague, until she dropped it altogether in the wake of Bates’ arrest.

Speaking of Bates, his romance with Anna Smith turned out to be one of the biggest jokes of the season. I never thought it would come to this. Honestly. Aside from the appearance of the one-note villainous Vera Bates, nothing happened. I am trying to remember what was so interesting about their relationship. Instead, I find myself recalling how much I found Bates’ martyr complex so tedious. Why on earth would he give up a job that he liked to prevent the likes of Lady Mary from facing a scandal about her one night tryst with the late Kemal Pamuk? I mean . . . really! If Vera Bates knew about the scandal, half of Britain’s upper-class families and their servants must have heard the rumor. Meanwhile, Anna kept making a chump of herself, while buying Bates’ promises of how he was going to get rid of Vera. I wish Fellowes never brought her on the scene in the first place. I enjoyed Maria Doyle Kennedy’s performance in “THE TUDORS”, but ended up with one of the dullest and badly written villains in television history.

For once, the Crawley family did not fare any better. Lady Mary remained the only upper-class character with any real complexity and a strong subplot. I suspect that the character became a personal favorite of Fellowes, and actress Michelle Dockery benefited a great deal from his writing. However, not even she or Dan Stevens could overcome the maudlin romance that their characters had been saddled with in Season Two. The Matthew/Mary romance had started as an interesting one in Season One, and transformed into a cliché-riddled love story fit for a bad romance novel. The two worse moments in their relationship turned out to be that Godawful moment when Matthew (who had been reported missing) suddenly appeared at Downton Abbey during a concert, joining Mary in “If You Were the Only Girl” and when Mary experienced a “feeling” the moment Matthew suffered a major wound in Episode Five. I had to struggle to keep from throwing up during both scenes. And although Lady Edith managed to overcome her resentment of Lady Mary, the two subplots that Fellowes saddled on her character went no where. The “Patrick Crawley” subplot, in which a Canadian officer claimed to be one of her father’s former heirs . . . simply went no where. Her “affair” with a local farmer, which consisted of a kiss, ended just as soon as the farmer’s wife had her dismissed. I have already revealed what happened with Lady Sybil’s relationship with Tom Branson.

Cora, Countess of Grantham was involved in two major subplots. One involved her power struggle with Isobel Crawley (Matthew’s mother) over who would manage the convalescent hospital and Downton Abbey. Poor Isobel was portrayed as a tyrannical do-gooder from the middle-class. And many fans cheered when Cora managed oust her from Downton Abbey. I did not. All Cora had to do was remind Isobel that she was mistress of Downton Abbey, while the latter continue to run the hospital. Instead, she resorted to a passive-aggressive means to get rid of Isobel and I ended up feeling disgusted. I was also disgusted by the machinations that Cora and the Dowager Countess used to detract Isobel from keeping the convalescent hospital opened after the war ended. I found it ridiculous. They seemed incapable of simply telling Isobel that Downton Abbey would return to being a private home. Yet, once again, fans cheered over the aristocratic women’s triumph. Sickening. Robert, the Earl of Grantham came close to being written as a complex character. He spent most of the season feeling useless, because he was unable to obtain a command and go to the front. Eventually, Robert’s feelings of uselessness and abandonment led him to become romantically involved with a housemaid named Jane Moorsum. This subplot would have worked, if it had been introduced . . . before Episode Five. Aside from plotting Lady Mary and Matthew’s reconciliation, Violet, the Dowager Countess spent most of the season spouting one-liners. I hate to say this, but I eventually found this tiresome. Poor Maggie Smith had been reduced to being the show’s comic relief.

Thanks to Vera Bates, Lady Mary had to seek the help of her suitor, press baron Sir Richard Carlisle, to help her get rid of the blackmailing woman. In return, Lady Mary promised to become officially engaged to Sir Richard. Poor Iain Glen. Vera Bates was not the only badly written villain to appear in Season Two. Sir Richard was another. Despite his title, Sir Richard was a self-made man, who certainly did not originate from the upper-classes. Both Lady Mary and Lord Grantham did not hesitate to let him know. More importantly, Fellowes did not hesitate to portray him as some mustache-twirling villain without any complexities, whatsoever. Which is not surprising, considering he was not an aristocrat. Poor Iain Glen. His previous roles were a hell of a lot more ambiguous and interesting than Sir Richard “Snidely Whiplash” Carlisle.

I might as well face it. Season Two of “DOWNTON ABBEY” disappointed me. Sure, there were a few aspects about it that I found admirable. But Fellowes’ writing simply undermined the show’s quality. I had hoped that his portrayal of the Crawleys’ servants would improve from Season One. It did not. Worse, the season was marred by incomplete subplots that went no where and badly written romances that left me shaking my head in disgust. I hope . . . I pray that Season Three will prove to be a lot better.

“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.

“WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” (1999) Review

“WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” (1999) Review

Eleven years have passed since the BBC first aired ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”, the 1999 adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 novel. And despite the passage of time, it has a sterling reputation as one of the best adaptations of a literary source in recent years. 

Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Nicholas Renton, ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” told the story of Molly Gibson, the young daughter of a local village doctor during the last decade of the Georgian era. The four-part miniseries struck me as Molly’s coming-of-age story. She and her widowed father lived an idyllic life until two things occurred. One, her father married a woman she disliked, a former governess named Hyacinth “Claire” Kirkpatrick. And two, Molly fell in love with one Roger Hamley, the scientifically-minded younger son of a local squire.

If Dr. Gibson had his way, Molly would have never experienced any coming-of-age. But after one of his apprentices became romantically interested in her, he became determined to keep her in a state of perpetual adolescence. But his actions merely ensured that he would fail. First, he arranged for Molly to become the companion to Mrs. Hamley, the sickly wife of the squire. This gave Molly the opportunity to form an emotional attachment to the Hamley, befriend and fall in love with younger son, Roger. Then Dr. Gibson committed another act that defeated his purpose. He married former governess Hyacinth Kirkpatrick in order to provide Molly with a stepmother. This action backfired, since Molly never warmed up to the selfish and socially ambitious older woman. However, she did befriend the new Mrs. Gibson’s rebellious and more worldly and daughter, Cynthia Kirkpatrick. Not only did both Kirkpatrick women managed to disrupt the Gibson household, but Molly’s relationship with Cynthia would open her eyes to a great deal more about relationships and life in general – both the good and bad.

Other subplots abounded in ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”. Molly had a first-hand look into the conflict between the loveable, yet impatient and slightly selfish Squire Hamley and his more genteel older son, Osbourne. At first, the Hamleys seemed to regard Osbourne as the key to the family’s return to its former glory. But Osbourne’s scholastic troubles and excessive spending (for a secret French wife for whom he provided a private household) ended up disappointing Squire Hamley. Instead, he transferred his hopes to his younger and more studious son, Roger; who seemed to be on the verge of making a name for himself as a naturalist in Britain’s scientific community.

Another subplot centered on Cynthia Kirkpatrick. The French-educated and very beautiful young woman seemed to have struck both the Gibson family and the village of Hollingford with the force of a whirlwind. Cynthia projected a sexuality and worldliness that attracted nearly every male around her – including Roger Hamley. Unfortunately for Molly, Mrs. Gibson’s plans for her daughter included an ambitious marriage to the older Hamley sibling, Osbourne. But when the intensely pragmatic woman discovered that the older Hamley sibling’s health was in a precarious state, she encouraged Cynthia to set her sights on Roger. And considering his feelings for her, Cynthia had no trouble in achieving her mother’s goals with an engagement. Cynthia also had a secret that eventually affected Molly. Five years before, she had become secretly engaged to Lord Cumnor’s land agent, Mr. Preston. The latter’s insistence on a wedding date and Molly’s involvement on Cynthia’s behalf led the doctor’s daughter to become a target of village gossip.

Not only is Gaskell’s novel considered a masterpiece by literary critics, but this 1999 adaptation turned out to be highly regarded by television critics and viewers, as well. Some critics consider it to be the best adaptation of a Gaskell novel. Other critics believe it might be a toss-up between ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” and the 2007 miniseries, ”CRANFORD”. The 1999 miniseries certainly won its share of television awards. And if I must be honest, those awards were well-deserved. ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” provided a complex and in-depth peek into an English village society during the last decade of the Georgian era through the eyes of Molly Gibson. I must admit that I have rarely come across a movie or television series set during the 1820s or the 1830s. And I would certainly consider ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” among the best. Screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Nicholas Renton did a marvelous job in drawing the audience into Molly’s world.

The setting and story of ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” – or at least most of them – seemed to perfectly represent this precarious stage in Britain’s history in which the country found itself balanced between the static world of the Georgian period and the social and scientific upheavals that ushered in the Victorian Age. Davies and Renton manifested this in Molly’s coming-of-age story, which included her father’s reluctance to allow her to develop into an adult and her relationship with Cynthia. The screenwriter and the director also manifested this precarious stage in the relationship between Squire Hamley and his two sons – Obsbourne and Roger. As for the latter, many believe that Gaskell based his character on her distant cousin, the naturalist Charles Darwin who became a prominent figure in the Victorian Age’s scientific community.

Davies and Renton also did an excellent job of exploring the in-depth emotions of familial and romantic love in ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” also explored the in-depth emotions of familial and romantic love. Molly’s close relationship with her father – fully explored in Episode One – eventually grew weaker due to Dr.Gibson’s attempts to keep her close and at an adolescent stage. I found it interesting that although Squire Hamley grew to adore Molly, he made it clear to the doctor that he would never consider her – the daughter of a country doctor – as a suitable wife for either of his sons. Yet, Roger Osborne ended up married to a young French woman beneath his social station, and Roger eventually became engaged to Dr. Gibson’s step-daughter, Cynthia and married to Molly by the end of the series. Already, Victorian Britain’s social upheavals – at least in ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” – had began to rear its head. Cynthia’s love life, which turned out to be the best plotline in the story – also turned Molly’s life upside-down and forced her onto the path of adulthood.

The miniseries’ greatest virtue turned out to be the collection of complex supporting characters that gave ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” its energy and drive. For me, this was especially true of five characters – Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson (Francesca Annis), Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon), Osborne Hamley (Tom Hollander), Mr. Preston (Iain Glen) and Cynthia Kirkpatrick (Keeley Hawes). When the miniseries focused upon these characters, I found myself fascinated by the story. Each character struck me as so complex that it seemed a pity that none of them was the main character. Michael Gambon won both a BAFTA TV Award and a Royal Television Society Award for his portrayal of the likeable, yet socially rigid and selfish landowner, who seemed determined to return his family to its former glory, via one or both of his sons. I must admit that Squire Hamley was truly a fascinating and complex character. Although I liked him a lot, there were times I could have happily strangle him for viewing his sons as instruments for his familial ambitions and inability to truly understand them at times. Francesca Annis earned a nomination for her portrayal of the self-absorbed and social climbing Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson. One would, at first, be inclined to label Hyacinth as an “evil” stepmother. But Annis’ performance made it clear that Hyacinth was not at all one-dimensional. She also managed to inject a good deal of pathos into her character, allowing one to understand that some of Hyacinth’s behavior stemmed from a sense of survival for herself and her family, due to years spent in the social wasteland as a governess and underpaid schoolteacher.

Tom Hollander gave a very affecting and sympathetic performance as the poetic Osborne Hamley, the squire’s elder son who constantly disappointed his father. From other articles and reviews of ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”, many tend to view Osborne as a weak and self-involved man. I never got that impression from Hollander’s complex portrayal. Instead, I saw a man whose only real weakness was an inability to admit to his father that he had made a socially inacceptable marriage. It was this weakness that led to scholastic problems at the university and monetary problems. Iain Glen’s Mr. Preston seemed to be the villain of the story – at least on a superficial level. His Mr. Preston tried to coerce Cynthia into honoring her promise to marry him after five years. Superficially, Glen portrayed Mr. Preston as a smug and slightly arrogant man, who seemed obsessed with Cynthia. However, thanks to his complex performance, he revealed to audiences that Mr. Preston had been nothing more than a victim of Cynthia’s capricious and selfish behavior. As for Cynthia, Keely Hawes gave a delicious performance as Molly’s sexy and very likeable step-sister. What I found interesting about Hawes’ Cynthia is that the character possessed a talent for avoiding responsibility for her actions, along with an inability for returning love . . . yet, seems quite capable of winning the affections of everyone around her. Except for Dr. Gibson. The rest of the cast included Bill Paterson, who gave a charming, yet complex performance as Dr. Gibson; along with Barbara Flynn and Deborah Findlay as the Misses Brownings, and Rosamund Pike as Lady Harriet Cumnor, who all gave solid performances.

Justine Waddell did a good job in carrying the four-part miniseries and making Molly Gibson a very likeable leading character. Yet, there were times when Waddell’s Molly came across as a bit too ideal for my tastes. Aside from her quick temper, she seemed to lack any real personal flaws. One could name her naivety as a flaw. But that particular state of mind is something the average human being will always experience during his or her lifetime. Overall, Molly was . . . nice, but not what I would call an interesting lead character. Her reaction to her father’s new marriage and her involvement with Cynthia’s problems with Mr. Preston seemed to be the only times I truly found her interesting. I certainly could not say the same about Squire Hamley’s younger son, Roger. In fact, I did not find him interesting at all. To me, Roger was simply aBORING character. Perhaps Anthony Howell was not at fault and did all he could with the role. The actor certainly portrayed Roger as a likeable and compassionate man. But the character was just boring. If I had been Gaskell or even Davies, I would have portrayed Roger as a more complex and interesting character. Or allow Molly to fall in love with a more interesting character. Alas, neither happened. Roger’s only flaw seemed to be a habit of falling in love with women on a superficial level.

Due to Molly’s idealistic personality and Roger’s dull one, I found their romance very unsatisfying. Renton handled their blossoming friendship rather nicely in Episode One. However, Roger took one look at Cynthia in Episode Two and immediately fell in love. Worse, he left England for Africa after proposing marriage to her. Roger did not return to Hollingford until past the middle of Episode Four. This left Renton and Davies at least a half hour or so to develop Roger’s romance with Molly and get them married. And how did he fall in love with her? Roger took one look at Molly wearing a sophisticated ball gown and hairstyle (courtesy of Lady Harriet) and fell in love. Ironically, he fell in love with Molly in the same manner he had fallen in love with Cynthia. That did not bode well with me. Many have praised Davies for providing a memorable ending to Gaskell’s story, considering that she died of a heart attack before completing the novel’s last chapter. I would have found it romantic myself, if I had not found the couple’s romance rushed and unsatisfying. I realize that ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” is not solely about Molly and Roger’s romance. I also realize that the romance was nothing more than one of the story’s subplots. But that does not excuse what I saw as a poorly dramatized romance that began and ended on a hasty note.

I also found the miniseries’ early sequence – Molly’s first meeting with her future step-mother at Lord Cumnor’s estate – somewhat unnecessary. I can only assume that this sequence was supposed to establish Hyacinth Kirkpatrick’s selfish nature and Molly’s dislike of her. Yet, by the time the series ended, I had the feeling that the impact of Molly’s relationship with her stepmother did not seem as strong as I had earlier believed it would, while watching Episode One. Most of Molly’s problems seemed to be centered around Cynthia’s relationships with both Roger and Mr. Preston.

Thankfully, ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” has more to offer than just an interesting tale and excellent performances. Production designer Gerry Scott did a solid job in bringing the late Georgian Era back to life in a small, English village. And if I must be honest, I adore Deirdre Clancy’s costumes. I found them colorful and strongly reminiscent of the late 1820s and early 1830s. Cinematographer Fred Tammes did justice to the miniseries’ early 19th century setting. He made Hollingsford look like a very colorful place to live and southern Africa very exotic, yet desolate.

I wish I could say that I found ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” to be a complete delight. But due to a leading female character that I found too idealistic and her unsatisfying romance with a very dull character in the miniseries’ last quarter, I cannot make that claim. And as I had stated earlier, I found the early sequence featuring Molly’s first meeting with her future stepmother a bit unnecessary. But the virtues outweighed the flaws. ”WIVES AND DAUGHTERS” conveyed an interesting coming-of-age story, thanks to the leading character’s interactions with some well-written supporting characters. It also provided viewers with a tantalizing look into the changing social mores of Britain, as it prepared to transcend from the Georgian Era to the Victorian Age.