Downton Abbey: Season 3 (Blu-ray)
Directed by Brian Percival et al
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 525 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 54.99
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Review Date: January 17, 2013
A kind of Upstairs/Downstairs for a new generation of viewers, the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, both aristocrats and servants, engage in a third season of ruptured romances, thwarted love, forbidden entanglements sometimes between different classes but also among their own, and hushed-up scandals, and all of this set against the backdrop of post-World War I England covering the years of 1920 and 1921 and illustrating the notable changes beginning to seep into the culture for both aristocrats and commoners as the Roaring 20s begin to materialize.
There are so many conflicts involving both sets of characters this season. Downton Abbey is on the verge of ruin due to some thoughtless investments made by the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) losing the fortune that his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) brought into the marriage and which has been propping up the way of life they have all taken for granted. Heir to Downton Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) may come into a vast fortune left him by the father of a former fiancé, but his stubbornly forthright values of righteousness prevent him from considering using the money to restore Downton’s fortunes causing some unpleasantness with current fiancé Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and suggesting that their upcoming nuptials might be in jeopardy. Among the Earl’s other daughters, there is also considerable strain. Middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) is infatuated with an older man who’s also crippled and persists in her pursuit of him while youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) who had wed the family chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) against her family’s wishes returns to Downton now pregnant with the rebellious, politically-minded journalist Tom unwilling to play the upstairs games.
Among the servants, there is also much ado. Lady Mary’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is doing all she can to find evidence to clear her valet husband John Bates (Brendan Coyle) of the life sentence he was given for murdering his former wife, but the road to his eventual freedom is rocky and unquestionably in doubt. This season finds the series’ two most onerous characters, Lady Cora’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and footman-turned-valet Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) at war due to his jealousy concerning her nephew Fred (Matt Milne) who he thinks was promoted too quickly in the household. Her insidious plan to bring him down concerns matters of the human heart that are devastating in the series’ later episodes. There are also health scares, flirtations, and an impending lessening of structure among the positions of the servants which only suggests further juicy drama in the seasons ahead.
The hero of season three is undoubtedly series creator and writer Julian Fellowes who has crafted a perfect season for his adored characters. Unlike some of the more seemingly manufactured dramatic machinations from season two he wrote in order to get characters where he wanted them to be, this season flows as smoothly and effortlessly as Dutch chocolate through rich character development and succulent narrative events that balance the joyous and the tragic in uncannily brilliant ways. As for the performances, they are to a person magnificent. They can bring laughter to one’s lips or tears to one’s eyes effortlessly, and the piecemeal storytelling is never a chore because every character is so endlessly interesting that one wants to spend as one time as he can with all of them. Yes, the vaunted showdown scenes between Cora’s American mother played by Shirley MacLaine and the two-time Emmy-winning Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham of the treasurable Maggie Smith are worth the price of admission, but the entire cast plays at the same levels of excellence and are surely not to be missed.
As before, there are eight episodes (untitled) of varying lengths and a decidedly bittersweet Christmas special which runs 93-minutes.
The program’s widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 is faithfully delivered in 1080p resolution (the liner notes state 1080i, but it’s in error) using the AVC codec. There are no problems whatsoever with image quality with the warm, richly saturated colors reproduced to perfection and sharpness so keen that fabrics and furnishings take on a splendor that only high definition can deliver. Reds and greens come across especially well but are never overdone, and flesh tones are immaculately represented. Black levels are excellent. Each has been divided into various chapters which are found in the menu for each episode.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo sound mix takes on a beautifully enveloping quality when decoded by Dolby Prologic IIx. John Lunn’s gorgeously poignant music infuses the drama at every important moment, and the dialogue has been so succinctly recorded and reproduced here in the center channel that the improvements over the sound quality of the broadcast version are palpable.
All of the bonus material is presented in 1080p.
“Downton Abbey: Behind the Drama” is a 48 ¾-minute special produced to air between the end of the second season proper and its Christmas special catching viewers up with events from the first two seasons. The show’s stars talk about their roles (Maggie Smith is notably absent from this and all of the bonus features) along with writer/creator Julian Fellowes as we see behind-the-scenes filming as they prepare for the Christmas special.
“Downton in 1920” is a 17 ½-minute featurette featuring writer Julian Fellowes, director of the season’s first two episodes Brian Percival, producer Gareth Neame, production designer Charmian Adams, historical advisor Alistair Bruce, and some of the show’s stars and other crew members discussing changes to the show for the third season.
“The Wedding of Lady Mary” is a generous 13-minute peep behind-the-scenes as the much anticipated wedding of Lady Mary takes shape. Naturally the principal actors Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens have much to say along with other members of the crew who joined together for this massive production moment.
“The Wedding of Lady Edith” spends 16 minutes detailing the preparations for Edith’s wedding with the same members of the crew and actress Laura Carmichael and actor Robert Bathurst adding comments about their roles in the show.
“The Men of Downton Abbey” concentrates on the three primary classes of gentlemen portrayed on the show. Historical advisor Alistair Bruce and actors Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley), and Allen Leech (Tom Branson) discuss their characters and their differences to one another.
“Shirley MacLaine at Downton” spends 9 ¼-minutes with the award-winning actress as she discusses her character and her interaction with the cast and crew of the show.
“Behind the Scenes: The Cricket Match” is a 6 ¾-minute behind-the-scenes look at the production of the climactic cricket match for season three featuring interviews with several of the men (most of whom knew nothing about playing the game).
“Behind the Scenes: ‘A Journey to the Highlands’” focuses on the production of the season three Christmas special and how its moods and emotions were so different from the one that marked the end of season two. It runs 12 ¾ minutes.
5/5 (not an average)
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ll be laughing and crying, too, over the monumental events of its masterful third season. The set is a terrific representation of the show’s best season yet with an abundance of bonus material and video and audio quality that’s superb in every respect. Highest recommendation!