Tag Archives: Historical Drama

Downton Abbey – The Complete Series

Let’s do something a little different.  Downton Abbey is a series about history, unlikely drama but history nonetheless.  With that, I imagine a foreword to a fictional book about our characters, written by one of their children.  For your reading pleasure, here is the foreword to the 1959 book “Downton Abbey: A Portrait of My Mother’s Youth” by Marigold Crawley, written by her good friend and fellow popular writer, Ellen Worthington.

Foreword: Downton Abbey, a View From the Gallery

When Marigold told me she was writing a book about the events that took place at Downton Abbey between the summer of 1912 and date of her mother’s wedding in December of 1925, I thought she was mad.  While her last book “Children of the Our Age” dealt with her family’s experience during the Second World War, she was at a distinct advantage there.  First and foremost, she personally lived through those years.

How much could possibly have happened at a sleepy country estate during that time period to warrant such a history?  Improbably, Marigold then told me the volume would even largely gloss over the years of the Great War and focus heavily on the 1920’s.

I was at the point of advising her to pursue another topic.  Then I saw her mountain of research, including interviews with most of the major players (even one with her great-grandmother that she had done as a child).  I was so impressed that I insisted that I must write the foreword, so here we are.

I have known the Crawley family for many years, ever since the first time I made the trek to Downton Abbey with Marigold when we were children in the early 1930’s.  When I went through her notes, I was surprised and a little shocked to learn about everything that transpired there during the fourteen years depicted within this volume.

Some of the events herein are hard to believe.  Matthew Crawley, for instance, was a dull solicitor.  Then, struck by good fortune, found himself heir to a wealthy estate.  Struck by bad fortune, he was thought paralyzed from a wound during the Great War.  Then, good fortune again, he fully recovered and married.  Then he died in a car accident.

There’s a relative who “returned from the dead” during the War.  There’s the scandalous incident with a Turkish diplomat, which has long been an open secret in certain circles.  There’s a romance between a valet and a lady’s maid that would be fit for a Thomas Hardy novel.  It’s frankly hard to believe that so many things could happen to one family and their staff during a scant fourteen years.

What struck me most about the story, however, is the development of the characters.   Marigold has described her mother’s character arc in her previous writings (most notably a thorough history of The Sketch Magazine), but it’s no less jarring here that the strong, brilliant woman I’ve known all my life was once nearly consumed by jealously and depression.  Thomas Barrow, the Crawley family butler, who I have only known as patient and kind, was apparently a conniving sneak at one point.  Even Tom Branson, one of the pioneers of the automotive industry in Great Britain, was for a time banned from his native Ireland for being a socialist revolutionary.

My favorite character stays consistent throughout the story, and that’s Marigold’s great-grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Marigold insists the woman will haunt my dreams with biting words if I were to refer to her by her birth name).  She was at the same time the voice of upper class aristocratic angst and the voice of reason and kindness.  I wish I had known her in life, but she is so well depicted herein that we have the next best thing (although Marigold’s mother and her aunt Mary have certainly inherited a solid amount of the Dowager Countess’ wit).

That one family had given Marigold three voluminous histories is scarcely believable, but when you meet the people described herein, you will see why these stories continue to be so popular.   I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Ellen Worthington, London, 1958

 

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA

The biopic is a genre that is, like its literary cousin the biography, decidedly not for everyone.  The reason being that even relatively short lives consist of massive amounts of detail, so the author or filmmaker has to strike a difficult to achieve balance between burying their audience with minutia or glossing over complexities in the name of coherent narrative.  This is hard enough to do in a 400 page book, much less a two and half hour film.  Lincoln succeeds in obtaining this balance not by ambitiously retelling large swaths of our sixteenth president’s life but by focusing in on the the early months of 1865 right before Mr. Lincoln’s tragic death.

Don’t get me wrong – there are great biopics that succeed in taking the long view of one person’s life (Gandhi (1982), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Raging Bull (1980) to name a few).  Certainly Spielberg, with his talent to tell the over-story (often at the expense of his characters) could have pulled off a massive and action filled epic about Abraham Lincoln.  Perhaps someday that film will be made, but in this story is not massive, action filled, or epic, but rather a successful attempt to connect the audience with who Mr. Lincoln was by re-creating, in precise detail, a short period of his life.

While Spielberg goes beyond his comfort zone by resisting the epic and focusing on the day to day, Daniel Day-Lewis is squarely in his domain.  After all, his last two Oscar-nominated performances (winning one) were playing nineteenth century Americans.  Of course this is about the only thing that these characters have in common.  In any event Mr. Day-Lewis once again shows why he is often considered today’s finest working actor.  The rest of the cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, etc.) are more than up to the task as well.

Of course Lincoln does not escape Spielberg’s eternally optimistic worldview, despite the tragic ending that we all know is coming.  After all, even his greatest work, the tragedy Schindler’s List (1993) is pure Spielberg when it breaks the fourth wall at the end.  For those who don’t like his work in general, this may be a bit of a turn off.  Certainly the tragic complexities of the Civil War are rarely visited territory in films, and there is a case to be made that Spielberg misses an opportunity.  For me, however, that is another director’s film for another day, and what Lincoln sets out to do – present a detailed portrait of Abraham Lincoln by re-creating a few specific months of his life – is masterfully accomplished.

You may like Lincoln if: You are interested in a refreshing take on the biopic that uses masterful acting and directing to present a vision of Abraham Lincoln that sheds new light on a revered historical figure.

You may not like Lincoln if: You feel that Spielberg can do no right and that every film about war has to be dark, bleak, and gritty.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe