#FrancisOnFilm: Downton Abbey

18 October 2019

Hard as it may be to believe, I never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey. But September was not a good month for new film releases playing in the hinterlands of Salt Lake City (and I won’t see Joker because of its level of realistic violence), so off I went to Downton Abbey, the movie. In today’s world of throwback longings for idyllic distant pasts, it turned out better than I had hoped as a source of philosophical reflection, especially about class and the positions of outsiders.  


The movie supposedly resolves some loose ends left from the series. As a Downton Abbey neophyte, I cannot comment on whether the resolutions are satisfactory for the series, but I can say that movie reveals social tensions rather than resolving them. Class is both idealized and undermined in the movie, and outsiders are both heralded and ultimately absorbed. 


Class is idealized through the Abbey itself, a grand estate in the north of England at the heart of life in the area of Yorkshire where it stands. Downton employs an extensive staff of servants who take pride in their roles without being servile. When the King and Queen come to visit, bringing their own staff who attempt to sideline the household staff in a manner that is overweening and highly offensive, the Downton servants respond with a clever demonstration of their capabilities and initiative.


Mary, the eldest granddaughter of Downton’s matriarch, recognizes the importance of keeping Downton going for all those who depend upon it. Yet one of the most adventurous of the servants finally commits to marry another only after he has committed an act of passion that suggests the two will be able to realize their ambitions together beyond their lives as servants. And Mary, in a reflective moment with her grandmother, recognizes that although Downton may remain, it will also be transformed over the centuries. 


The two clear outsiders in Downton are Tom, who is Irish, the family’s former chauffeur and widower of the family’s youngest daughter, and Thomas, who is gay and has advanced from footman to butler at Downton. The events in Downton take place in 1927, with Ireland’s bloody 1916 Easter Rising a bitter and recent memory and the general labor strike of 1926 still reverberating. Tom’s loyalty to family overrides his Irish republican sentiments and it appears by the end of the movie that he may rescue the Downton family fortunes as well. Thomas, despite having a need for rescue from an arrest, appears to have found genuine love and even acts with grace to the former butler whom he apparently displaced during the series.


So Downton will remain, but it won’t, and outsiders will become insiders, or maybe they won’t. And all will end happily—or will it?


Class today is a far more fraught notion than the halcyon world of Downton even hints despite taking place in the aftermath of the general strike. Whether class should continue to be equated with income and type of job—the traditional academic view—or with social attitudes such as opposition to immigration or same-sex marriage—is contested among social scientists. Equally contested is whether class should replace identified categories of historical disadvantage in discussions of social justice, with some contending that attention to economic disadvantages of class is the most persuasive response to populism. Not incidentally to the class and outsider themes of Downton, the delineation of class in terms of social attitudes rather than economic status is far more likely to ensure that outsiders remain beyond borders of nation or sexuality.

Comments (1)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, December 31, 2019 -- 6:55 AM

i enjoyed this film, but not

i enjoyed this film, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed reading this take down of class.

Class is an issue for our age, but also a shelter from the storm. We do things we don't intend only to justify them in class.

I am a fan of this post and aspire to the class of the author.