“Belgravia”– Downton Abbey REDUX

Belgravia,  based on “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ 2016 novel of the same name,  opens two days before the Battle of Waterloo at an aristocratic ball.  Two London families—the Earl (Tom Wilkinson) and Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) and the up-and-coming merchants, Anne (Tamsin Greig) and Philip Trenchard (Philip Glenister), are uncomfortable in their brief interactions.  There are insurmountable  class differences and  if that were not enough, the romance between the Brockenhursts’ son and the Trenchards’ daughter fuels the discomfort.  Over the course of twenty-five years, a long-buried secret unravels and threatens to ruin both families.  The shadows of that ball  demand a reckoning. 

 Belgravia soon becomes a suburban residence for the affluent, developed by the Trenchards’ company, as one of the first housing developments of its kind.   Betrayal, class warfare, subterfuge between family members, and secret love affairs proceed at a rapid pace as underhanded tactics and greed dominate the plot. 

Laced with intrigue, Belgravia is darker and meaner than “Downton Abbey”.  Characters have darker places in their souls, if they have one at all.  Some family members surprise with their character development and shift in moral compass.

Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter as the two mothers are at turns, haunting and devious . The veneer of gentility radiates in public places, disguising cozy manners wrapped around a hard core.  Both actresses have a remarkable ability to make the viewer share their innermost private feelings.

A thoroughly engaging soap opera/melodrama, Belgravia is certain to be a crowd-pleaser for fans of historical drama and is an engaging follow-up to “Downton Abbey”.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime (Epix) and on Netflix as a DVD.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society   is a Netflix historical drama based on the 2008 historical best-selling novel of the same name by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, a year after the end of the Second World War, we see Julie Ashton (the talented Lily James –Lady Rose in “Downton Abbey”), a London author writing under a male pen name. She yearns for a writing project in her own voice.

Ashton gets a letter from Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey pig farmer, who has a used book with her name and address. Exchanging letters with residents on the island of Guernsey, which endured Nazi occupation, Ashton accepts an invitation to read to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club that was actually part of the underground resistance.

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Intrigued by how much books mean to this isolated community, how reading kept everyone sane during the war, Ashton decides this book club and its history would be the perfect subject for a London Times article, the writing project of her dreams. But all is not as it seems. There is betrayal, a romance or two, and escape into the world of books for solace.

The original Guernsey novel is completely in a “letters” or epistolary format, mostly letters between Ashton and Adams, so the visual and sense of place is severely lacking. The film’s best moments, on the other hand, provide a keen sense of 1946 island life in a small British community. There is a sense of community after suffering a shared loss during the Nazi occupation.

The Guernsey book club is similar in feel and sense of identity and community as “Downton Abbey”. We see the bravery of the underground as they resisted the Nazis and yet we come to understand the price of war for all involved and the need for forgiveness.

A feel-good movie with three other “Downton Abbey” actors in key roles, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is entertaining, although not as engaging as the “Downton Abbey” PBS series.

The House of Eliott –Fashion Haute Couture

House of Eliott
House of Eliott

This BBC television series broadcast between 1991 and 1994 is a sleeper, dramatizing feminism immediately after the First World War. A consistent theme throughout “The House of Eliott” is the struggle of women in the 1920s to live fulfilling and independent lives. Created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who had previously devised “Upstairs, Downstairs,” this is a period drama focused on the same era as “Downton Abbey”.

Two sisters, Evangeline and Beatrice Eliott establish a fashion house designing haute couture after they are forced to be on their own by the sudden death of their father. Left almost destitute and without any education, the sisters are forced to sell the family home. Refusing to accept the extremely low wages paid by prominent fashion houses, they decide to establish their own business at a time when women were not allowed control their own finances, when women could not obtain bank loans, and when working was considered an oddity and a scandal, except for the poor. On the cusp of the women’s suffrage movement, Bea and Evangeline have to carve out their own destiny in a man’s world of fashion.

“The House of Eliott” charts the two young women’s struggle to assert their newly discovered independence and establish a successful fashion house as well as confront those who try to interfere with their business plans. The sisters’ personal and professional breakthroughs are aided by a fun-loving photographer, Jack Maddox, who encourages them at the same time he pampers the vanity of the wealthy women who become the Eliott sisters’ customers.

This is an entertaining BBC series, but the paced is slow as is common in the nineties. Marsh and Atkins have written endearing and intriguing characters. The clothing– beautiful yet controversial in design– could almost be considered a stand-in for the freedom and independence of women.   As the clothes become more comfortable and less confining so do the Eliott sisters.  Fans of “Downton Abbey” will be in for a treat with “The House of Eliott”.

 

 

“Parade’s End”–An Historian’s Downton Abbey?”

 

The five-part BBC/HBO miniseries “Parade’s End” premiered on HBO last week (February 26) and is also available on video-on-demand.  The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted  Ford Madox Ford’s monumental 900 page, four-novel series “Parade’s End” for television:  the intellectual’s  Edwardian-era alternative to “Downton Abbey.”   Both series take place in the same time period, beginning with the decade before the First World War.  But the view of the British class system, the end of the Empire, and the attitude towards the war could not be more radically different.

Take the British class system as one example.  The mansion of the main character, Christopher Tietjens, is no less opulent or aristocratic than Downton Abbey but is not populated by kindhearted masters who confide in their servants.  Moreover, unlike “Downton,” which used the trench warfare in France mostly as a heroic experience for its young hero Matthew Crawley,  “Parade’s End” is a scathing indictment of the “Great War.” The massacre of an entire generation of young men on both sides of the front, and the distancing of the entire British elite in their club chairs and literary salons is mercilessly presented.

“Parade’s End” tells the story of a bad marriage, in an inner world tiny and self-contained, in  a privileged highly stratified society. Christopher Tietjens (brilliantly played by Benedict Cumberbatch) believes in a code of conduct as well as high ethical standards no longer upheld by the majority of his peers (if they ever had upheld them).  Most of his social class is solely determined to hold on to their positions in society.   The era appears to be dying, and this is the tragedy.  Tietjens is clear-eyed about some of the impending changes and blindsided by others.

A brilliant statistician and analyst, Tietjens is also an anachronistic English gentleman, righteous to the point of rigidity and loyal to a fault towards Sylvia ( an astonishing Rebecca Hall), a haughty beauty who finds her husband’s punctiliousness and moral standards insufferable.  She will inflict any humiliation to elicit a response from her affectless spouse because he is the only one among her many male admirers not to find her irresistible.  Without Christopher’s desire for her, the other lovers are meaningless.

Tietjens’s morals are tested when he meets a lovely, intellectual young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (a winsome Adelaide Clemens), who returns his affections and his wit. He remains faithful to Sylvia, but the two are disgraced by gossip anyway.  Only Tietjens believes that war in Europe is imminent.  He volunteers to fight with the French, out of a sense of honor and duty, only to see that the war is cruel and futile.

“Parade’s End” is a more focused and darker story than “Downton,” as it gazes into its characters’ twisted souls and their self-destructiveness. The viewer needs to embrace the contradictions in human nature– the way one person can be both insightful and hateful (especially Sylvia).  While you always understand the connections among the characters on “Downton Abbey,” you have to piece them together yourself in “Parade’s End.” Critical elements of the characters often aren’t revealed but must be inferred.

This mini-series is much more subtle and moves slowly, as the early 20th century British aristocratic life did, with everything looking good on the surface but simmering with scandal and sensuality underneath.

Cumberbatch can convey volumes by simply curling his unusual Cupid’s Bow upper lip.  As an emotionally stifled Brit  small facial shifts can seem glacial.  He is a shift-changer: moving from nobility to foolish lover to respectful and generous, to broken and surviving.

“Parade’s End” has a different sort of entertainment value than “Downton Abbey”, but no less a visceral and addicting experience, without a shred of unnecessary dialog or emotion.