Catching up on Downton Abbey this past weekend, I was reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s droll definition of drama as “life with the dull bits cut out.” His more literary contemporary, Somerset Maugham, put it more academically: “The drama is make-believe. It does not deal with the truth but with effect.”
The effect of PBS' wildly popular Masterpiece series Downton Abbey is that we keep tuning in every week, eager to witness the next calamity in store for those folks both upstairs and down. No doubt this is classy, well-written fare, with interesting characters and superb production values but, in the end, it’s not so much drama as soap opera — for the perspicacious, to be sure. Like most television series, the plots and characters evolve over time, sometimes at the whim of a cast member who wants to move on to the big screen, as was the case with Dan Stephens (who played Matthew Reginald Crawley) and his ill-fated auto ride at the end of Series 3.
Taking a respite from the shenanigans and heartbreak of Downton, I decided to revisit director James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, nominated in 1993 for eight Oscars (including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress) but winning none. Schindler’s List won the big prize, while Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Remains lost to Tom Hanks (Philadelphia) and Holly Hunter (The Piano).
Nonetheless, Remains holds up as a fascinating, incisive look at the same kind of world as Downton Abbey, with some of the similar class and romance conflicts, minus the comforting melodramatic flourishes of the small screen. Taking its fictional Darlington Hall as a microcosm of 1930s England trying to cope with the growing threat of Nazi Germany, the film explores the national and personal tragedies of those who fail to see the truth of their personal lives as well as that of the larger world.
Hopkins is magnificently restrained as Stevens, the head butler at Darlington, so immured in his devotion to the misguided Lord of the Manor (James Fox), he lets his personal life and moral commitments hang in abeyance while handling the superficial details of the house. Thompson is equally superb as Miss Kenton, the housekeeper who almost prods Stevens into life. Their mutual tragedy is the result of his failure to realize that the real world is passing him by. On a larger scale, the same is true of Lord Darlington and his political cronies, who fail to see the lies behind Hitler’s vision of a new Germany.
Particularly poignant, looking back at the film some 20 years later, is the strong presence of Christopher Reeve as an American diplomat and millionaire who tries ineffectively to save Darlington the Man but eventually assumes control of Darlington the House. It was less than two years after the release of Remains that Reeve suffered his paralyzing horseback accident.
For younger and older fans of Downton Abbey, the 1993 film should prove revelatory, an understated classic about the people who lived upstairs/downstairs between the two wars that changed their world.