Julian Fellowes chases his new series, “The Gilded Age,” in a decade. Call it his white whale. Starting Monday on HBO, you can watch the series drag him and a massive, talented cast under the waves.
What will become the “Golden Age” started in 2012 like Fellowes’ idea for his prequel “Downton Abbey,” the British upstairs costume drama, which was a huge hit for PBS in the United States. The early years of “Downton” were a smooth, seductive blend of family tragedy and pastoral comedy, but the charm faded and relevance grew throughout the six seasons, and by the time the series ended in 2015 The idea of a commercial has lost some of its beauty.
Even so, Fellowes persisted, even as he wrote other films, like the highly entertaining Georgia TV series “Belgravia” (2020). “The Gilded Age” was suspended, switched networks (from NBC to HBO), and finally when filming began, experienced a pandemic delay. After all this time, it’s sad to announce that the film, while no longer a prequel to “Downton,” looks like a stagnation and more superficiality in terms of familiar character types and situations. from the previous series. (Five out of nine episodes were there.) Maybe all the time has something to do with it.
Set in New York in 1882 (about 30 years after “Moby-Dick” was published there), the series opens as a newly minted family, the Russell family, move into the designed mansion by their Stanford White on Fifth Avenue, across from the less luxurious but more respectable home of wealthy sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).
George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a Vanderbilt-style railroad magnate and bandit general, and his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), is fiercely dedicated to interfering in New York society. Their immigration status was established immediately, with the arrival of horse-drawn carriages carrying boxes of statues presumably searched from homes and churches in Europe.
This is Henry James and Edith Wharton territory, and Fellowes isn’t afraid to compare. A scene set at the Academy of Music, once New York’s main opera house, directly evokes Wharton’s “Age of Innocence”; a scene in which a mercenary suitor is sent a package straight out of James’ “Washington Square” and its theatrical adaptation, “The Heir” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.
And there’s a beauty, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), the granddaughter of Agnes and Ada, who is reminiscent of many of the young women in James and Wharton’s novels, though she’s not as innocent, tragic, and attractive as she is. those models. She comes to her aunt’s house to represent the audience and provides some romantic interest in dealing with the brutal economic and social war but makes up the central story. Through highly unlikely circumstances, she also brings along an aspiring writer, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young black woman who becomes Agnes’ secretary and allows her countrymen to explain about race along with class and gender in his portrait of 19th-century New York.
Even so, it’s a messy and rough portrait – a thin layer of varnish on its high-quality sources always sinks into the caricature. Fellowes’ heart doesn’t seem to be in it; surely his ears weren’t: “They own the future, men like Mr. Russell,” we said, and “You’re a New Yorker now… and to a New Yorker, anything. could happen” and on the other hand, “You belong to old New York, my dear, and don’t let anyone tell you differently!”
Shopworn’s dialogue combines with largely one-note features, most seriously seen in the hidden widow Agnes, who seems to have no thoughts but her distaste. for a new way of life. In general, the conservatism and sobriety of the old sentry is overwhelming, and presented with such little context that the women in society seem to have come from outer space, and the actresses playing their shoulders could do nothing more to make them human.
Of course, one of the glories of “Downton” was the excellence of its performers, many of whom were relatively unknown in the United States before then. For “The Gilded Age,” HBO assembled a more well-known cast, but most of the actors fell victim to the clarity of the material. Baranski’s usual brilliance was muffled; she’s the designated zinger delivery person, like Maggie Smith in “Downton,” but the effect isn’t there. Nixon tried hard but could not find anything suitable to play in Ada, who was always on the verge of hysterical caricatures. Bertha is a slightly more rounded character – the story is generally more sympathetic to those in the future – but her grim social climb isn’t much more interesting than Agnes’ snob, and Coon seemed as annoyed as her co-stars. Other performers go straight to the research, like Nathan Lane as social umpire Ward McAllister.
However, there’s plenty of talent on screen, and some performers sign up for smaller roles. Kelli O’Hara plays a socialite wife desperately trying to bridge the gap between old and new. Audra McDonald conveys strength and compassion as Peggy’s caring mother. And Sullivan Jones brought the show to life in a brief appearance as the editor of a Black newspaper that featured Peggy’s article.
In “Downton,” Fellowes succeeds in cutting out the wider world and bringing his story into the everyday rhythms of a family and an estate. In “The Gilded Age,” he lets the world in, but everything seems smaller. The domestic workers go through the same soap opera-like motions we enjoyed in “Downton” but felt unnecessary to the story; New York’s social circle is called 400, but here it’s more like 12 or 15. And while the costumes and interiors are lavish, the streetscapes of Fifth Avenue are now constructions. build based on computer graphics – you don’t even get the true glory of the manor. As the Countess of Grantham said, everything is different in America.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/23/arts/television/the-gilded-age-review.html ‘The Gilded Age’ Review: Dime-Store ‘Downton’