[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Belgravia.”]
Did you like “Downton Abbey”? Yes, of course! Everyone liked “Downton Abbey”!
Let me rephrase that: Did you like the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons of “Downton Abbey”? You know, the ones after you-know-who died in a car crash? The one where beloved character [spoiler] was raped? The ones where there was a hideous crisis du jour and the melodrama was no longer so….mellow?
“Belgravia”, debuting April 12 on Epix, is executive produced by the “Downton Abbey” team of Julian Fellowes, Nigel Marchant, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge and contains both the best and the worst of that show. Like “Downton,” the production design, hair and makeup, and costumes are outstanding — at one point the titular London neighborhood of Belgravia is described as the “spangled city of the rich,” and dear God, does it look it. But also like the later seasons of “Downton,” the storytelling is so overt and relentlessly obvious that it causes the show to drag and characters to become cartoonish.
The series’ battle lines are drawn early: Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) and Caroline, Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter) are both women of substantial means — but Anne comes from new money, as her husband, James (Philip Glenister) earned his fortune through the construction trade, while Caroline earned hers the good old fashioned way: through marriage to Peregrine, Earl of Brockenhurst (Tom Wilkinson) and inheritance. Anne knows her place in the social sphere of Belgravia; even though her husband designed, built, and sold the grand palaces for the neighborhood’s rich, she’s not in the same social strata as the titled, nor will she ever be.
But a flashback to decades earlier at a ball in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo reveals that Anne and Caroline are united by a scandal barely just covered over by the mists of time. Anne’s daughter, the spirited Sophia (Emily Reid) and Caroline’s son, soldier Edmund (Jeremy Neumark Jones) engaged in an illicit romance before he left for the war. The resulting child was brought up by a rural vicar and his wife after Sophia died in childbirth. Now an adult named Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), Anne and Caroline’s unbeknownst-to-them grandson has moved to London and is now trying to make a name for himself in the cotton business.
As the action unfolds and the layers of secrets are revealed, there is a hitch in Fellowes’ adaptation of his own novel; clues to characters’ motivations and their backstories are repeated endlessly. It is something that may come across as subtle on the written page — “Oh, he’s acting like a buffoon because of the insecurity of being raised as a tradesman… right, right, I remember that mentioned six chapters ago” — versus the repetition of the theme countless times visually in six 50-minute episodes.
Fellowes is famed in his work like “Downton” and “Gosford Park” — and rightfully so — for giving the “downstairs” kitchen-bound characters in his creations as much of a rich interior life as those safely and warmly ensconced in the ballrooms upstairs. The problem with “Belgravia” is that every single member of the servant class is a schemer. You see someone wearing black and white with an apron? They are chaotic neutral at best — but almost always out to get you.
This may be more accurate to the time period — eat the rich, and all that, and apparently we have still to learn that lesson as a society — but it’s a narrative tell that makes the story drag: When the action switches to the downstairs crew, it will inevitably lead to a shifty meeting in a pub where documents and coins are furtively exchanged. No one has as much texture as “Downton’s” Thomas (Robert James-Collier) — and it is hard to say if that is because “Belgravia” is compressed into six episodes or if it is a writing fault from the outset.
Either upstairs or downstairs, there are no character arcs that show growth; villains remain villainous, obstreperous proud women remain obstreperous and proud, a character with a lifelong gambling problem will, guess what, have a gambling problem for his entire life. The big third act dramatic reveal is that a whiny entitled character is not so whiny and entitled that he will let somebody drown in front of him. Bravo!
The performers do the best they can with the material. The face-off between Greig and Walter as two mothers still in deep mourning for their dead children is predictably compelling. The mannered structure of the time does not extend to their performances; for both, their subtle turns still convey a depth of meaning. This extends to the other generation; from the first episode onward, Sophia and Edmund are shown in flashback. It’s a high-pressure situation where the performances of Reid and Neumark Jones must make a show-alerting impact in a very brief amount of time — and they do.
Will all this be disappointing for those looking for “Downton Abbey” 2.0? A bit. One of the chief selling points of ‘Downton’s” early seasons was how it tread the fine line between soap opera and prestige drama. “Belgravia” errs on the wrong side of that divide, but it is so well-appointed that it is never less than beautiful to watch, just like “Downton.” For some, the finery will win out over refinement.
“Belgravia” premieres April 12 on Epix.