Downton Abbey Christmas Special 2013 - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
NO EXPENSE was spared in terms of spectacle for the Downton Abbey Christmas special but this year’s seasonal offering left a lot to be desired in terms of narrative drive.
Far from offering a Christmas cracker of intrigue, romance, character development or surprise revelation, this fizzled out amid plodding multiple storylines and the type of pacing that even a snail may describe as slow.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments to savour. The final shot of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes venturing out to sea, hand in hand, was suggestive of a romance that we’ve all been waiting for. But even so, in terms of a cliffhanger ending, this was anti-climactic… unless we’re supposed to fear they may not make it back from the ‘treacherous waters’ in which they were seen wading!!
Of the aforementioned spectacle, viewers were treated to one sumptuous ball after another, as well as a trip to Buckingham Palace for Lady Rose’s coming out. Hence, there were costumes galore, as well as the sight of the royals and the military showing off the best of British tradition, almost as if to offset the American presence felt by the return of Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson and the arrival of Paul Giamatti’s Uncle Harold.
Indeed, this rather felt like an episode that had one eye on its American audience as much its British followers, almost as though it were trying to have its mince pies and eat them.
But what of the main dramas? The main one revolved around the Crawleys having to head off a potential royal scandal after devious card-shark Sampson stole a letter that revealed an illicit affair. This sounded a lot more exciting than it panned out, involving deception and sleight of hand… but, as ever, the manner in which it was carried out lacked any tension whatsoever.
In fact , it was Bates (Brendan Coyle) who ultimately saved the day, his ‘prison’ tricks coming in handy to both forge a letter to allow the Crawley women to ‘break and enter’ Sampson’s house in search of the elusive letter and then to pick-pocket the thief himself to retrieve it once all looked like being lost.
In doing so, Bates underlined his loyalty to the Crawley family, thereby dispelling any notion that Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) had of turning him in for the suspected murder of his wife’s rapist Green (Nigel Harman) at the end of season four.
But both threads exposed two big plot shortcomings in this episode: the first, being the decision to base a large chunk of the storyline around Lily James’s tedious Rose, by far the least interesting of all Downton‘s characters, and the second to have Mary, of all people, question whether Bates should be allowed to get away with his retribution.
It was Mary, after all, who pushed hardest to discover what had happened to Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) in the previous series and who also stressed the importance of the rapist being brought to some kind of justice. It felt dramatically wrong for her to even be willing to contemplate selling Bates down the river, knowing her fondness for Anna and the devastation this would have brought her given that Bates would almost certainly have been hanged for any such act.
It was a plot point that found Julian Fellowes’ writing seriously wanting when a far better examination of the fallout from that story would have been to explore any guilt that Bates himself was still having over the matter.
Similarly, the simmering tension between Rob James-Collier’s Thomas Barrow and Allen Leech’s Tom Branson never really caught light despite promising more. Early on, we got a close up of a clenched fist from Thomas that was suggestive of something more physical to come. But even though said Thomas suggestively landed forever doubting Tom in hot water with Robert (Hugh Bonneville) nothing came of it, which was another of this episode’s big anti-climaxes.
The best moments of this meandering episode came from Paul Giamatti’s Uncle Harold, impeccably played as ever by this classy American actor, but who felt so cut off from the main flow of proceedings that he could have been appearing in his own mini-period drama. His interaction with the Crawleys was kept to the barest of minimums, another missed opportunity.
And while Laura Carmichael’s Lady Edith continued to wrestle with her own demons over her missing suitor, Charles Edwards, and her secret baby, eventually arriving at the decision to bring said baby to England, even her moral dilemma felt fleeting, while the continued absence of Mr Edwards without explanation is now being dragged out to seemingly interminable lengths. One has to question whether Fellowes has even decided on what has become of Edwards in Germany?
There was more going on, of course… Daisy (Sophie McShera) was offered a job cooking in America but turned it down, Molesley (the ever excellent Kevin Doyle) continued his own gentle courtship with a colleague, and Tom Cullen’s Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake’s Julian Ovenden continued their pursuit of Mary. But none of these stories really got anywhere.
And, as usual, the very best lines were reserved for Maggie Smith’s Violet, even during the much anticipated verbal sparring matches with MacLaine.
Hence, you couldn’t help but emerge from this two-hour special with the feeling that Downton is continuing to lose its sparkle. The magic of that first season has long since passed, with only brief highs to counter its more numerous lows.
And while this particular offering may well have passed the time and allowed the turkey and mince pies to digest, it seldom gripped as tightly as it should or offered the feel-good factor of old.