On the surface, the deep enthusiasm for Downton Abbey seems inexplicable. In a cinematic year that has seen Captain Marvel, John Wick 3 and It: Chapter Two top the box office charts, a costume drama built around British aristocrats has inspired a level of devotion that should make even the Kathleen Kennedys of the world a little jealous. However, if you pause to think about it for a moment, it is perfectly sensible. When confronted by a world of anger, division and unrelenting gloom, the pageantry, dignity and simplicity of life at Downton is a welcome respite.
Indeed, Downton Abbey can be read as a reactionary celebration of an aristocratic social order, but I think that analysis sidesteps the show’s and the film’s overt yet subtle cheerleading for the rising tide of modernity. What I contend Julian Fellowes has achieved is a precarious yet successful tightrope walk which largely achieves its twin objectives of casting the twilight of the old world aristocracy in a favorable light while simultaneously heralding the advent of the new liberal world order.
This premise of the new film is astonishingly simple. The King and Queen of England are coming to Downton and the downstairs staff are getting sidelined by the Buckingham Palace traveling crew. The fact that Fellowes was able to easily extract two hours of rich entertainment from such a seemingly paltry storyline should be an object lesson in storytelling for at least 98% of contemporary Hollywood. Stated simply, Downton Abbey represents a world in which things like meaning, beauty, virtue, order, family, authority and faith carried actual weight. When these things matter, you can write stories that actually reach people’s emotions.
The characters of Downton Abbey are so lovingly drawn and the trials they endured through the series created such a firm bedrock that Fellowes didn’t need anything more from which to build a feature film. When Mary petitions Carson to return to Downton to manage the staff, your heart leaps because you already know the depth of his devotion to Mary, the Crawleys and the household. That’s just one scene. When the dramatic contours are that well sketched out, the only thing that needs to be done is to roll the camera.
It feels churlish to nitpick Downton Abbey, but I have some gripes. The main drama of the film is centered around a minor act of sedition mounted by the Downton staff. Because they’re treated so poorly by the Buckingham Palace team, they engineer a soft coup so they can serve the King and Queen themselves. After all, they’re patriots who want to show their devotion to the English monarchy as well as their provincial pride in being the staff who serve Downton Abbey. Subsequently, they manufacture an emergency in order to divert the Buckingham Palace team back to London. In essence, they mount a revolution which will enable the Downton staff to serve dinner to the King and Queen. Needless to say, we’re not talking about a Robespierre style Reign of Terror, but it feels like Fellowes had to genuflect to the orthodoxy of the revolutionary ethos. The show worked because you felt the Crawleys were inching towards modernity as opposed to diving headlong into the pool. Maybe Anna Bates had been catching up on Jean-Jacques Rousseau at that point, but Carson’s complicity in this gambit almost breaks his entire character arc.
Andy Parker’s sabotage of the water boiler is equally dubious. After being in a froth of jealousy over what he thought was Daisy’s affection for the local plumber, he breaks the mechanism all over again just to discharge his feelings. Instead of Daisy just saying “Bruh, why didn’t you just talk to me?”, she praises him for his willingness to commit an act of pointless vandalism. Men aren’t always adept at handling jealousy, but come on, Julian. This felt like a sop to Antifa garbage can stormtroopers.
I believe Downton Abbey makes the most sense as a story which serves as a proxy for how all the old world British aristocrats adapted to the democratic era. This is especially evident in Tom Branson’s entire growth arc. Tom begins as a fiery socialist revolutionary who wants economic and political equality, but eventually makes peace with the conservative values of his in-laws. In the film, Tom enjoys a nice moment of heroism which confirms his loyalty to the monarchy, but his republican sympathies are also upheld as heroic in another side story involving the Princess Mary. I believe that Tom finding peace among the aristocracy is representative of what socialism truly is: the orthodoxy of the elites masquerading as an ideology that lifts up the working classes. It’s also suggested in Edith’s run as a pro-suffrage publisher and Lord Talbot’s high end car dealership. Whether it was in the arts, publishing, academia, sports or entertainment, the socialist aristocracy simply found new ways of keeping the proles loyal to the democratic ethos. Right, Julian?
As if we didn’t need another reminder of how far down into the depths of Clown World we’ve descended, the idea of a virtuous old world aristocracy is regarded as a fanciful fiction in 2019. Albeit one that fills a gaping void in a world seemingly bereft of any larger purpose beyond consumption and mindless obedience to the orthodoxy of “progress”. When your de facto aristocrats are the Kardashians, a couple of hours fantasizing about having the Crawleys in their place is pretty damn appealing.
For many years, I couldn’t stomach a Victorian or Gilded Age drama because it required me to adopt a worldview that modernity had drummed out of my consciousness. Monarchy was just an antiquated relic that had been rightfully crushed by the enlightened dawn of Democracy. Needless to say, the fractious state of the democratic global imperium has forced me to reevaluate this assumption. It’s not a call to the return of monarchical social order that some in the media might lead you to believe, but its conservative bona fides are such a welcome relief from the seemingly neverending onslaught of wokeisms coming from Hollywood. Men and women fall in love and have children. Women look feminine and beautiful. The men are masculine and not portrayed as hapless and incompetent dolts. It feels weird to highlight these features of Downton Abbey as selling points, but it shows you how badly democratic modernity and its social engineers in Hollywood have downgraded the institutions that are upheld in the film and series. Hollywood is in such a hurry to normalize the idea that a man can fall in love with an AI that it forgets that a story which portrays family stability and continuity is exactly the kind of thing that most people want to see affirmed.
When you have a social order that is built around a hereditary monarchy, the family is sanctified as the building block of society. Society becomes oriented around the preservation of the social order. Art and architecture must also be trained towards the goal of creating timeless beauty so that generations to come will look upon their cultural inheritance with pride and a sense of duty. These notions are completely foreign to anyone who has grown up accepting the assumptions of post-Enlightenment liberalism as the pinnacle of human history. I believe this is why the Burkean model of conservatism has largely failed. Democratic capitalism was designed to uproot this old social order.
As citizens of the increasingly global democratic imperium, we’re supposed to scoff at the small minded and provincial outlook of the world portrayed in Downton Abbey. Sure, you can swoon over the beautiful costumes and elegance of Downton, but come on now. They couldn’t even handle people who are GAY! How backwards were these people, amirite?! Having to bow to a monarch is a indignity no one should have to endure, so thank goodness people have been liberated to shit in the streets without fear of reprisal from authorities. #PROGRESS.
Democracy didn’t abolish the monarchy. It simply obscured it and traded it in for a more crass and debauched version. The Rockefellers and Vanderbilts just got into media and philanthropy and you don’t even think twice about them because they’re funding things like NPR and the MOMA. Surely, they’re just as virtuous as the Crawleys, right? RIGHT?
I’m sure there were British nobles who were as likable and good hearted as the Crawleys. At the same time, when Hollywood or the BBC is trying to place your sympathies with a certain group of people, chances are better than good that they’re trying to divert your attention away from people in that group who are doing things that are unsavory. Perhaps even degenerate. I’m pretty sure Julian Fellowes isn’t terribly interested in discussing Prince Andrew’s connections to Jeffrey Epstein or Jimmy Savile’s proximity to the monarchy. But that’s okay, Julian. All of us lowly proles will never stop praising you for giving us one more opportunity to enjoy Violet’s tart ripostes. Because honestly, it’s the best entertainment you can buy in 2019.