Engler: Downton Abbey (2019)
It might be easy to dismiss or lampoon from a distance, but Downton Abbey is a terrific big-screen adaptation of a classic television franchise. The premise is disarmingly simple – the King and Queen are visiting Downton Abbey – and intensifies, rather than develops the relation between the characters, along with the spectacle of Downton Abbey itself. The shift to film cameras allows for more sweeping shots of Downton, which we see from the air, and from drone perspectives, with a newfound intensity, while the interior is throw into heightened relief as every familiar space, object and tableau is polished for the royal party.
In other words, the film is about augmenting the spectacle of Downton Abbey, which is actually renovated and extended to accommodate the military parade that will accompany the royal visit, including being equipped with a dais set up to house the King and Queen. In the process, Downton is shot from every conceivable angle, making for a terrific widescreen spectacle that is also true to the television series, whose long tracking-shots and surging theme music always seemed to be straining at the edges of the screen. Unlike the series, however, the film never really ceases this galloping momentum, cresting and cresting as the drone shots continue indoors, taking us up corridors and down stairwells, until Downton feels unimaginably porous and self-contained at the same time. This spectacle stops short of royalty, however, since the point of the film is to luxuriate in the way in which the King and Queen texture Downton, rather than vice versa. Accordingly, as royalty approach, they’re quickly inserted into a few ad hoc stories that showrunner Julian Fellowes includes to accommodate them, rather than making any tangible impact on the lifeworld of the series.
In other words, Downton Abbey is acutely aware that, after the intrigues of the first season, the pleasure of the series lay more in watching the characters riff, rather than in any elaborate or extended narrative mechanics. All the best characters are present here in a slightly heightened way, making this feel more like a live performance than a film, while the less charismatic characters, and the characters who were really just narrative props, such as Bates, tend to fate into the background. With character heightened in this way, the dialogue is free to spin out into a series of one-liners, clarifying, as never before, that Fellowes’ fetish for the English aristocracy is an exquisite form of camp more than a genuine classist sensibility. This campiness is even more evident in the wake of the more highbrow treatment of the English aristocracy in The Crown, and tends to be centred on the performance of class more than the economic or material attributes of class privilege itself.
In particular, Fellowes loves situations where people are forced to resume the performance of class at a moment’s notice, contorting themselves into one garish scenario after another to keep the performance plausible and productive. While Fellowes has been criticised for being too invested in class, or too opposed to class struggle, he’s more entranced by the increasingly extravagant ways in which class is performed as crisis intensifies. Most of the series’ narrative hooks involved situations that both affirmed and negated class in the same moment, forcing the characters to choreograph class in ever-more absurd and self-defeating ways, until it became little more than the awareness of its own continuous performance, and a form of collective camp. Here, too, Fellowes throws in one crisis after another, including communists, anti-royalists, people who are determined to leave their estates to servants and, finally, the two crises par excellence: homosexuals and the royals themselves.
Throughout the first part of the film, the King and Queen act as the ultimate signifier of class, heading the system that keeps Downton running, and standing in relation to Lord and Lady Grantham much as they stand in relation to their own servants. Yet while the Downton servants have never had such an honour as the King and Queen’s visit, they are also displaced by the visit, since the King and Queen have their own retinue of servants who not only displace the Downton servants, but collapse them into the same bracket as Lord and Lady Grantham. For the royal servants, everyone outside the royal household are lower class – a belief they enact early on by entering through the front door of Downton, rather than through the service entrance. As they relegate the Downton servants to the periphery, and remake the house in their own image, even the Granthams are demeaned in their own residence, as Fellowes presents a kind of logical conclusion of the English class system in which everyone outside the King and Queen’s immediate purview are merely “commoners.”
The other main crisis of class comes with the existence of homosexuality, and male homosexuality in particular. At this time in English culture, male homosexuality was often associated with redundancy and theatricality – yet these two qualities also drive the performance of class, which resorts to various theatrics to avoid the class system being rendered redundant, even as that class system is based on a structure of matrimony and primogeniture that excludes the possibility of male homosexuality. Male homosexuality is therefore both the blind spot and motor engine in the series, which started with a very dramatic homosexual love affair, and ended with a more bathetic approach to homosexuality. Whereas the exposure of homosexuality was initially a traumatic rupture in the fabric of the series, it eventually became a non-event, as Lord Grantham responded to the “revelation” that his butler Thomas was homosexual by glibly observing that he couldn’t even begin to recall the number of men who propositioned him at Eton. Far from being a disruption of class, homosexuality comically turned out to be integral to the Eton experience.
In that sense, the series followed the liberalisation of the aristocracy, and its increasing comfort in broaching the topic of homosexuality, during the first part of the twentieth century. The film arguably concludes this process, starting with a comic scene in which the homosexual butler, Thomas, is told that he is redundant, and that he will be replaced by the King’s butler. However, the King’s butler’s refuses to term himself as such, instead styling himself as Lord of the Master’s Back Stairs – the first in a series of homosexual puns and innuendoes that will be used to contour the increasingly precarious resumption of class performance in the face of the film’s mounting crises. Yet since these crises are partly induced by homosexuality, homosexuality becomes an inescapable point of reference for the class structure of Downton Abbey, embodying it at its most performative, but also challenging its claims to reproductive futurity, and its capacity to replicate itself indefinitely.
This interplay between class and homosexuality informs the pivotal scene of the film, when the Downton servants step in to save the day after the King’s servants prove to be unreliable. Normality is resumed at Downton, but this normality is intercut with Thomas’ first experience of a homosexual nightclub, and his first experience of a liberated homosexuality. Aristocratic futurity and homosexual futurity, which initially seemed to be inimical to one another, are parlayed into a kind of camp futurity in which the class system consists of nothing more nor less than a performative anxiety about its own future. In Downton Abbey, class simply consists of voicing anxieties about class, and performing anxieties about class, even or especially by characters who don’t especially believe in class to begin with. So dependent does class become on crisis, in Downton Abbey, that class itself eventually becomes a kind of crisis that all of the characters must negotiate, and the film itself choreographs, in increasingly precarious, provisional and performative configurations.
By the end of the film, then, Downton Abbey is more like a dance than a narrative, throwing all the characters into heightened relief, along with their particular choreographic strategies for negotiating this class crisis that is perpetually on the verge of overwhelming them. The film ends with a literal dance, but also with the Dowager Countess making the final metaphorical pivot, as she confesses to Lady Grantham that she has a terminal illness, but that her spirit will continue to exist as long as Downton continues to exist. No character embodies the camp futurity of the series quite like the Dowager Countess, who continually professes anxieties over a future that she has already disinvested in, turning this very concern about futurity into a camp pleasure that is her own response to the series’ class crisis. By collapsing her choreography of the class crisis into the broader choreography of Downton, Fellowes collapses Downton into its own dance, as the film swells rather than ends, like a standing wave that is somehow moving and stationary in the very same instant.
For the most part, Downton Abbey has been compared unfavorably to Gosford Park, Fellowes’ other major screenplay for the big screen. Yet these final moments reveal how much Fellowes learned from Robert Altman’s directorial style, which tended to favour films driven by a collective propulsion amongst people and situations, rather than by story or character per se. During the second half of Downton Abbey, Fellowes often seems to be following Altman by realising that the class crisis of Downton can’t be properly told through a “main” character, as the series sometimes attempted, nor through a “main” plotline, as the series also attempted, but instead must take the form of precisely the collective propulsion, and ensemble mentality, that Altman had made his own. While it may be the sequel to the television series, then, Downton Abbey is also the spiritual sequel to Gosford Park, since it ultimately adapts the ensemble rhythm of the series and collective momentum of its fanbase, making for one of the most elegant television-to-film adaptations I’ve seen.
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