Julian Fellowes, the man who built “Downton Abbey,” “Gosford Park” and other edifices of lesser cultural impact, is back with another place-named winner: “Belgravia,” a highly entertaining six-part period soap opera premiering Sunday on Epix. Set mainly in London at the dawn of the Victorian age, it is based on a 2016 novel Fellowes published online in serial chapters, like Charles Dickens, who had written five by the time this story takes place.
As with the Downton Crawleys a century later, the characters face questions of romantic love versus practical arrangements, individual aspiration versus social restrictions and new ways versus old ones — which some people like just fine, thank you very much. There is also the familiar business of an estate and its heirs. Yes, you will hear the word “entailed” spoken here once or twice — be still your heart.
The story starts in Brussels, 1815. Meet the Trenchards! Father James (Philip Glenister, in all his concentrated mass) is “the Duke of Wellington’s vittler,” supplying food and drink to the troops. For once in a story, it’s the husband who’s the social climber, more for business than status, while wife Anne (Tamsin Greig) is more conscious, if not always to her credit, of what separates her new-money family from the old-money aristocrats her husband works for, and wary of the relationship her daughter Sophia (Emily Reid) has formed with Lord Edmund Bellasis (Jeremy Neumark Jones).
“Nothing can happen to us. We’re the luckiest couple alive,” Edmund tells Sofia, as he departs the Duchess of Richmond’s historically famous ball for the battle of Waterloo. Well, you know what that portends.
And then it is 26 years later, and we’re in London. Simple flowing Empire styles have given way to industrial hoop skirts and frills. Neither Edmund nor Sophia is in the picture, and yet they are not quite out of the picture, either, having left the world a son. James, who has a big place in town and a bigger one in the country, with a decent number of servants discussing the family business down below, is attached as a sort of contractor for the historical personage Thomas Cubitt, developer of London’s Belgravia — “this spangled city for the rich, where we all live now,” as one character calls it — a collection of classical white mansions packed like row houses out back of Buckingham Palace. (Little changed, it plays itself here.) A son, Oliver (Richard Goulding), glimpsed earlier as a child, has grown up spoiled — not entirely his fault, he’ll point out — with a beautiful wife, Susan (Alice Eve), frustrated variously.
And then there is Edmund’s mother, Lady Caroline (Harriet Walter, a national treasure), married to Peregrine, Earl of Brockenhurst (Tom Wilkinson — this really is an all-star cast, if you know your Brits), whose younger brother, the Rev. Stephen Bellasisa (James Fleet — as I said, starry) is an indifferent cleric always in need of money. His equally profligate son John (Adam James) is all but engaged to Lady Maria Grey (Ella Purnell), though he is an aging wastrel and rake and overall not a very nice person, and she is not into him at all, notwithstanding he is set to inherit his uncle’s estate. More to her liking is young cotton merchant Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), “a very ordinary sort of fellow” by his own inaccurate reckoning. (He does not know his own secret; have you guessed it?) Lady Maria reads Shelley, dreams of seeing the Taj Mahal and Michelango’s David, and is not in the least cowed by convention.
Things get very complicated, what with custom-crossed love and plotters out to feather their nests with gold. All that’s at stake, really, is honor and reputation, and just why that should matter is batted about here. It’s a story about changing times, though times in which there is still nothing better than to be the legitimate heir to a giant estate.
Indeed, one suspects from his writing here and elsewhere that Fellowes is of two minds about it all. He seems to like both the rules and the prospect of their being broken; though he publicly protested the fact that his wife would not inherit an aristocratic title because she was a woman, he was, after all, protesting her not inheriting a title. This does create an interesting tension, and an aura of being in another time.
If there is a failing here, and it’s the only serious one I can think of, it’s that the downstairs element of the story is underdeveloped except as an emblem of class resentment. The economic critique Fellowes puts in the mouths of his thieving and scheming servants is not without merit, but it’s canceled out by their skulduggery.
Fellowes’ women are generally more interesting than his men, whom they must put up with or cleverly or bluntly manage, and that is very much the case here. (Even Susan, who seems wayward, is kicking against expectations.) As with Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton in “Downton Abbey,” but moved to the center of the story, “Belgravia” profits from the presence and energy of two strong women of mature years (Walter is 69, Greig 53) whose characters, like new partners in innumerable police stories, will travel from mutual suspicion to mutual admiration — different types of tough cookies who soften not only to one another but the world. When Purnell’s Lady Maria joins them, it’s like those scenes where the heroes walk abreast toward the camera in slow motion. (But they would never do that.)
Everything is expertly done. The dialogue is crisp, the actors classically adept and physically right, the direction relaxed, the camerawork restrained. And there are all the usual bonuses of British period drama: the costumes, the houses, the furniture in the houses, the gardens outside the houses, the seductive accents that somehow spell Quality to American eyes and ears. Though it avoids outright comedy, the production feels light: The story, which is generous to its heroes and even a little to its villains, goes just where you want it to, all the while keeping you afraid it won’t. After many cycles of dramatic tension and release, its end is as neatly managed as a Jane Austen novel or Oscar Wilde play — indeed, it shares a plot point, vaguely, with “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Because “Belgravia” is based on a novel and constructed as a miniseries — rather than as an open-ended, multiseason drama continually kicking a conclusion down the field, with A and B and C storylines that may sometimes intersect but don’t work toward a single end — it is more neatly shaped than “Downton Abbey,” if less of an existential warm bath. Indeed, you can get in and out of this story in less than six hours, with no need to return. Unless you wish to watch it again, which is not a bad idea at all.