Critiquing Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

A little while ago somebody sent me a very nice email asking if I would do a critical analysis of Downton Abbey. Since this kind of analysis is something that I’ve already done on so many British dramas in my book, I was reluctant. It would mean summarising many of the main themes in my book into one post, which is a difficult task. However, I like a challenge, so here’s my response.

While there has been considerable hype surrounding Downton Abbey as a brilliant new drama since it began, to me there is nothing particularly new or unique about it. It’s a natural extension and development of a mode of cinema and television drama that has been popular since the 1980s, if not before: heritage. ‘Heritage’ cinema and heritage drama are things I’ve written about a lot, but they can be summarised as historical costume films and period dramas, that have a very specific ‘look’, style, and mise-en-scène, that for some film and television critics, has been developed into a distinct screen genre (like say, horror, romance, or thriller, etc.). The term ‘heritage’ is often used to refer to a sanitised, stylised and nostalgic historical representation of the past in the present.

Another reason why such films and television dramas are referred to as ‘heritage’ is because they are boosted by and aligned with the work undertaken by official heritage bodies such as The National Trust and English Heritage. They are also aided by tourist companies who often exploit these dramas and films to promote a certain idea of what Britain and England represent to wider international audiences. This is not to say that all of these dramas and films are exactly the same, but it does mean that over the decades, a heritage screen ‘template’ has been formed via various films and television dramas that has come to represent a very familiar and very conservative idea of English national identity and British culture.

Downton Abbey sits very comfortably within the style I’ve termed ‘English Postcards’ in my book. That is, it relies heavily on repeated beautiful shots of grand country homes of the aristocracy as part of its visual appeal and heritage style; it relies on the representation of English space and English place as “postcard images of a stereotypically ‘old’ English home” (Cultural Afterlives, p. 106), that resemble those images tourists consume in gift shops. Those images aren’t just sold in gift shops however, they’re sold to us on screen too.

If you sit back and examine how certain scenes are shot in Downton Abbey, you’ll notice that characterisation and plot often play second fiddle to the aesthetic depiction of the house of Downton and its extensive luxurious grounds. This is common among heritage films and dramas, and relies on very specific camerawork I describe as “slow-moving and long-distance shots” which allow for “a contemplative and leisurely view of the scenery, but also frames the images within a picturesque logic of background, middleground and foreground” (Cultural Afterlives, p. 106). This picturesque logic, which developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting and art, was one of the key ways in which the landed aristocracy and the rising middle classes consolidated their social and cultural power through the beatific representation of their land and property. Just think of Gainsborough, and you’ll know what I mean.

I guess the question I always hear when I talk about all this with my friends is: where’s the harm? Where’s the harm in enjoying all this, and indulging in the beauty of these old aristocratic and privileged homes and lifestyles? Well, on an individual level, not much. But we don’t live as islands, we live in societies, cultures and countries. Where’s the harm? The harm comes in the fact that what is being promoted is a very limited and specific representation of English and British identity for modern audiences, who are increasingly living in multicultural communities and societies. On a daily basis, many of our politicians (in Australia too) exploit the uncertainty of modern times by reverting back to some idealised vision of national identity that relies on exclusion, privilege and creating borders between cultures and communities. These heritage dramas and films do the same thing (if, in a very beautiful and seductive way).

The landed aristocracy of the past relied on very distinct exclusionary boundaries of property, of who gets to have basic human rights, of money, of privilege, of land, and yes, of national identity. And by sanitising the inequality of these boundaries into some pretty imagery of luxurious houses paraded like heritage porn, we are also helping perpetuate inequality in the present. This is not to say that Downton Abbey doesn’t explicitly explore certain issues of class and privilege in its plot-lines, but it does so in a very safe manner that allows us to comfortably sympathise with those in power and their exclusionary world-views. As much as I too enjoy watching this drama for its aesthetic beauty, I feel there is also value in stepping back sometimes and recognising that it is also based on problematic premises about history, power and the present. And you know what? It is perfectly okay in my book to enjoy Downton Abbey, while still being critical of it.

Image credit: Image from here.