Friday, January 13, 2012

Gosford Park and Downton Abbey: The social vs. the psychological

I enjoyed the first season of Masterpiece's show Downton Abbey very much, and like many people, sat down to see the first episode of the second season last Sunday.  The new episode wasn't bad at all, although it felt like the writers crammed down a lot of points today to set the stage for what I assume will be the "real" developments that follow. But this seems as good a time as any to remark on the show's strengths and weaknesses.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Abbey, wrote Robert Altman's Gosford Park and I remember watching that movie alone in my dorm room, a bad pirated print with bad sound (the overlapping Altman-style dialogue didn't help matters).    The murder mystery at its center was interesting and kept me watching, yet there were these surreal things that didn't quite gel: the wet, rainy opening sequence, with the picture of the wet maid keeping an umbrella over her mistress was one.  What was the movie's point, I wondered.

And then, it all came together in a kind of moment that movies should strive for.  [SPOILER ALERT].  The lady's maid played by the wonderful Kelly Macdonald has discovered that it's not the brooding valet (Clive Owen, the first time I've ever watched this charismatic actor) who's murdered the aristocratic owner of Gosford Park, even though, he is, in fact, owner's illegitimate son.  Rather, it's the valet's supposedly long-dead mother, the housekeeper of Gosford Park, Mrs. Wilson (played by Helen Mirren) who never knew of his existence until very recently.  And she did it because she knew her son, who isn't even aware that she is his mother, wanted to murder his father.  She's also angry because she was assured that the son she would give up would be adopted by a family and have a good life; instead he was actually given away to an orphanage.  She kills her employer to protect her son.  It's his life that matters, Mrs. Wilson says, concise and matter-of-fact. But what about your life, the maid asks.  In a line that can seem didactic on repeated viewings, but resonates like whip-lash when you hear it for the first time, Mrs Wilson replies: I am the perfect servant.  I have no life. 

In those two lines, the film distills itself to its essence.  The life of a servant under the aristocracy is about being invisible.  Fellowes and Altman had made a murder mystery that's not actually about the usual psychological motives for murder at all.  While we are teased with all the usual motives for murder - love, hate, anger, money - it turns out that this is a murder driven by hate for a certain kind of social arrangement.  [SPOILER ENDS]

Downton Abbey is almost the complete opposite of Gosford Park, almost as if Fellowes wanted to make amends for having created a biting critique of aristocracy. The aristocrats here are almost the embodiment of saintliness.  While they are, of course, used to a life of privilege and to being waited upon hand and foot, they are also unfailingly courteous to, and extremely fair to their servants.  The servants, in turn, are all suitably grateful: there is little griping about class here.

When I saw Downton Abbey for the second time, I noticed things I really hadn't the first time, when I was too engrossed in the plot to notice.  The first is that literally every "downstairs" character (except for the unscrupulous Thomas and cunning O'Brien, on whom more later) is "good."  Good, meaning that they're all hardworking, unfailingly fair,  industrious, and nice within the boundaries of reason.  The butler Carson is a bit ridiculous --  think The Remains of the Day - but he's self-aware and beyond his occasional pomposity, he's still a good guy.  They're all in stark contrast to O'Brien and Thomas who are positively Machiavellian in their dealings (not to mention that they're the only two to smoke cigarettes while they plot everyone else's downfall). 

This, I suppose, is the equivalent of political correctness in the show.  Since the show is not a critique of class, but rather an old-fashioned melodrama (heartbreaks, mild intrigue, passion, love), it won't do to have servants who are embittered for social reasons.  The bad servants clearly need a psychological reason for their badness and indeed, it is supplied for Thomas: his repressed homosexuality has led to an internalized homophobia (the cook refers to him as "damaged," a surprisingly charitable, and therefore anachronistic, assessment for those times).  I suspect that in subsequent seasons we will see why O'Brien is the way she is (the show is already starting to redeem her character in certain ways, notice her sympathy to the new valet who has shell-shock).

Which is why the "upstairs" characters are far more interesting.  Since their motivations can be seen to be free of class (after all, if you're upper class, class doesn't really exist for you.  And besides, since these guys are all good aristocrats, they're free of any taint of snobbery as well), they are allowed to be far more psychologically complex: they all have a touch of meanness and hardness that's not straightforwardly evil (like Thomas and O Brien).  My favorite was the Lady Mary Crawley, who comes across as impossibly hard and brittle in the first episode, wondering if she has to wear black when her fiance dies -- but somehow comes to have the richest inner life of all the characters in subsequent episodes.  Her motivations range from jealousy (that her cousin Matthew has become the son that her father longed for) to a certain striving for something she isn't quite sure about which is why she hesitates to marry him.  Her motivations for all her actions are never quite clear-cut (even the scene where she tells Matthew she likes him comes after she sees Matthew becoming more interested in her sister, Sybil).  She can also be incredibly vicious: the Edith-Mary relationship is probably the most daring thing that the makers of Abbey have ever portrayed.

All in all, the artistic choices of film-makers are constrained by what their film is about. Since Gosford Park was explicitly about class, the downstairs characters were far more interesting: their motives were an irresolvable mix of the social and the psychological.  The upstairs characters, on the other hand, were expectedly shallow (the fantastic British actors notwithstanding) -- which was, in a sense, the point.

Downton Abbey, because it tries to neutralize class differences, is almost forced to make its downstairs characters sympathetic (and when not, to give them clear psychological motivations for being the way they are).  It has no such problems with its upstairs characters, who can all be seen as "good" socially because they don't exploit their employees.  Which therefore makes possible ambiguous and indelible characters upstairs characters like Mary Crawley with her on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Matthew Crawley as well as her venomous attitude towards her sister Edith.  I am curious to see what journey the writers take Mary Crawley on next.

1 comment:

omar said...

thanks for posting your thoughts. i was looking for some psychological insights into the show!