The coronavirus challenged compassion-providing ministries in new ways
If Anglophiles could make a wish and erase one show from memory to watch anew in this moment made for binging, Downton Abbey would likely top the list of candidates. While there’s, sadly, no magic that’ll allow us to meet the Crawleys or Mr. Carson and the rest of the downstairs gang for the first time all over again, we can introduce ourselves to Belgravia, the new series from Downton creator Julian Fellowes.
Fans of Downton won’t need any legal definitions smuggled into the dialogue this time around. By now, we’re all familiar with arcane inheritance terms like entail and primogeniture. We know perfectly well why the lovely but undistinguished Miss Sophia Trenchard is an unsuitable match for dashing Lord Edmund, the only son of the Earl of Brockenhurst. And we understand what kind of complications will arise when young Edmund is killed fighting Napoleon in the Battle of Quatre Bras.
The plot is vintage Fellowes. Once again we have an esteemed aristocratic house left without an heir. We have a family trying to solidify its place in a changing world. And we have servants who, far from being background props to the drama, have their own motivations and roles to play in the intrigue.
"We see the great gears of the Industrial Revolution clanking along, changing the social classes."
From a historical perspective, it’s helpful to look at Belgravia as a precursor to Downton. It explores the beginnings of societal shifts in the 19th century that transformed the class system of the early 20th. While Edwardian-era peers like Lord Grantham wondered what their place was in a brave new world of commercial manufacturing, Victorian merchants like the Trenchard family are unsure if they belong in high society drawing rooms, however much new money they’ve brought with them.
The key difference is Belgravia takes place over six self-contained, hourlong episodes. Once it’s over, it’s over, so the action moves along at a much brisker and more straightforward pace.
This tidy, linear approach to the storytelling is a bit of a shame: It robs the characters of much of the nuance and development we’ve come to appreciate from Fellowes. Not that it’s completely absent, but for the most part the villains stay villains, and, a few lapses in judgment notwithstanding, the upright stay mostly upright. There’s no time for the subtle grace notes that made Downton something more than a soap opera in period costumes—however sudsy it could get at times.
Only one character in Belgravia represents the moral theme that dominated Downton: the nobility of serving others well, whatever one’s station. Here, we see the great gears of the Industrial Revolution clanking along, changing the social classes. But there’s never a moment that matches the personal poignancy of heir apparent Matthew Crawley finally allowing his butler, Mosely, to straighten his tie and select his cuff links. Nothing where we see the dignity of work so beautifully honored.
Still, while Belgravia is much lighter fare, it does offer some wonderful performances, particularly from Harriet Walter as Countess of Brockenhurst. Jane Austen lovers may remember Walter best as the greedy Fanny Dashwood from 1995’s Sense and Sensibility.
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Belgravia may not be the most nourishing viewing option. But given that the only concerning element is an adulterous affair that an image of tangled sheets implies rather than shows, it’s a better choice than most other new series right now.