Editor’s Note: Rob Crilly is a British journalist and the White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner. He was The Telegraph’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and was the East Africa correspondent for The Times of London. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
“Leave Downton?” asks Michelle Dockery’s slightly weary Lady Mary as we get rather to the point of the new “Downton Abbey” movie. “I think we’re stuck with it.”
After six seasons of gently preposterous tales of missing teaspoons, canceled engagements and scullery romances, we now have to endure two hours of big screen tales of pilfered ornaments, simmering resentment and a waylaid dress.
Never mind that the movie is set in 1927, a year still tense with the after-effects of the 1926 General Strike, the spillover from Ireland’s new status as a free state, and a world of unrest from the rest of the British Empire. No, what troubles the residents of Downton Abbey is the impending visit of King George V and Queen Mary.
“Would it be common for me to admit I’m excited?” says Hugh Bonneville’s Earl of Grantham in that slightly absent manner he has perfected.
Maybe the world is changing outside, is the film’s message. Maybe it’s all being turned upside down as the proletariat wins a share of power. Maybe it is all going to hell in a handcart. But in the upstairs, downstairs world of Downton, all is as it was before. Even Jim Carter’s Mr. Carson – that bowler-hatted symbol of an old order – is called up from retirement to lend a hand.
So there’s that missing dress, a broken down boiler and a growing question about whether the silver will be polished in time. All of that makes far more sense than the brief intrusions of the outside world, in the form of an outlandish Irish Republican plot and a rather implausible trip to an underground gay bar in York.
None of it stands up to scrutiny (apart from maybe the boiler breaking down when it is needed most). It is a comfortable confection. An invention of a nation that has never dealt properly with its own history.
As the makers of “The Crown” have done, Downton’s creators have filled the screen with an airbrush of modern sensibilities and confectioners’ sugar to recast Britain’s imperial class not as what a number of them were, warmongers with blood on their hands, but as concerned liberals in tweed.
None of it is real. Every step of the country’s progress, from Ireland’s freedom to votes for women, came the hard way. Through protest, through anger at injustice and often through blood.
It is all there, in all its gritty detail, in Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” released last year – or in the films of Ken Loach.
But to criticize “Downton Abbey” (not even an abbey by the way – where are the monks?) for glossing its way through history is to miss the point. This is a film for 2019, not of 1927. We live in a time when people need escapist drama perhaps even more than they did in 1927.
The audience around me at a Washington, DC, viewing broke into applause on Saturday afternoon as the movie ended for one simple reason: They got what they had come for. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess still lands the best lines as she snipes at Penelope Wilton’s Isobel; there’s a dog (possibly not the same one) at Grantham’s side; and Lesley Nicol’s Mrs. Patmore is still Mrs. Patmoring her way around the kitchen in a gale of shrieks and gasps.
About the biggest sign of changing norms and shifting conventions is when someone suggests that the Dowager Countess need not dress for dinner but can merely remove her hat. “You talk as if that were easy,” is her delicious reply.
If only this were our world. If only these were the greatest challenges to the natural order. That the British Parliament were not prorogued, the Prime Minister were not accused of lying to the Queen and that millions of Britons might know what comes next in the crippling Brexit crisis.
Do I need to talk about America? Is there a convention or understanding that is not challenged by a President with no previous experience of public service, who refused to release his tax returns during the campaign, maintains ownership of his businesses (including hotels used by visiting dignitaries) and who appears to think it acceptable to ask a foreign leader for help gathering dirt on a political rival?
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For two splendid hours watching this film, none of that mattered. Downton Abbey, the glorious Highclere Castle in real life, stands solid and unchanging in the English summer sun. It may have leaky roofs, a spiraling heating bill and squabbling servants – but it quietly delivers a message that duty and honor will endure. Even if it doesn’t seem like it just now.