Downton Abbey ½

“Did the general strike effect you?”
“My maid was rather curt with me – but she’s a communist at heart”

This is a film in which a former Irish revolutionary makes amends for his prior wrongdoings by turning in an anti-royalist insurgent who is plotting to assassinate the king. Epochal conflicts (the Irish struggle for independence, the Boer war, the 1926 General strike) are treated as minor footnotes which temporarily inconvenience our obscenely wealthy protagonists before the status quo can be resumed and they can focus on the things that truly matter: a dispute over an inheritance; socially advantageous marriage arrangements; the logistics of throwing a ball so lavish that it will put all other aristocratic families to shame. In a particularly low moment, one of the Abbey’s owners questions the morality of her luxurious lifestyle, considering the possibility of turning the place into a hospital or a children’s shelter instead (it’s a perfunctory scene clearly added by Fellowes in a limp attempt to pre-emptively answer the film’s socially conscious detractors). Her maid, distraught at seeing her beloved boss in tears, reassures her that Downton is a beacon of British sophistication and a source of inspiration to the lowly commoners who surround it. She concludes that the servants would prefer to remain in the comforting bosom of the estate than risk the dangers of freedom. This scene perfectly illustrates Fellowes’ idiotic vision of the class system. The fact the underclass are tightly bound to their masters isn’t portrayed as the result of social conditioning or desperate self-preservation, it’s rather portrayed as an idyll state of affairs that is necessary to keep the harmony of society intact. Anybody who attempts to disrupt or upend this system (i.e. a poorly paid dressmaker who steals ornaments from her bourgeois clients, knowing that they would hardly notice they were missing) is treated as aberrant. British heritage cinema at its most insidious.

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