By Hannah Mills–
As did many others, I made the trek to the movie theatre to see Les Misrables. And, as many others are, I am a Downton Abbey fangirl.
I could go on and on about the music in Les Mis, about the amazing screenwriting that makes Downton what it is, the actors, many things.
Today, however, I want to focus on some things that are more in the background.
After watching Les Mis, I noticed something. The costuming was incredibly well-thought out.
The Thenardiers, viciously money-minded people with no morals and a dramatic flair, had costumes that perfectly fit their chameleon-like personalities. The colors were bright, almost verging on gaudy. Their teased hair and heavy makeup accented their bawdy outbursts and licentious lifestyle.
Eponine, Thenariers’ daughter, dressed very differently. The costume designer stuck to earth tones, and gave Eponine’s dresses a tomboyish/trampish look. She didn’t agree with the lifestyle of her parents, and practically lived on the streets. Sweet and savvy, her personality and clothing style spoke of the clashes between what she wanted in life and what her parents strove for.
Cosette, as a young woman, was styled in soft colors and feminine cuts; touches of lace, a ruffle or ribbon here and there, very genteel and quiet. This, too, fit the persona of her role. A peace-loving person, the sort you would find curled up with a book and a kitten.
Throw these four characters into the same scene and their differences are multiplied tenfold simply by how their costumes play off each other. Without words, the swaths of fabric on the actor’s bodies are giving backstory. Showing, rather than telling, and translating the concepts of gentleness or mercenary-minded into visible images.
Now, on to Downton!
With this one, it’s the voices.
Each character has a voice that fits his or her personality. I don’t know if Julian Fellowes planned this or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me—he is a master of his craft.
The people Upstairs have very different speaking habits and speech patterns than the ones Downstairs.
Lady Cora Grantham barely has an accent at all. An American transplanted to Britain, she has mostly retained her American accent, her soft voice embellished with just the tiniest hint of a British lilt. As a person, she is generally very soft-spoken and controlled, who quietly enjoys socialization and parties, but hates the stress of having three daughters to marry off, and no son to inherit her fortune.
Carson the butler’s accent is stronger, but still rather refined in nature. Deep and slightly gruff, he speaks in the most proper manner at all times. Any slip-up would be unseemly, considering his duties towards the Granthams’ and their prestigious estate.
Miss O’Brien—Lady Grantham’s maid—and Thomas the footman both have voices that can be slick as oil or rough as cobblestones. Throughout most of the three seasons produced so far, they are cronies; plotting together against various characters. O’Brien is more Irish and unpolished, while Thomas is a Brit through and through.
Lady Mary, the eldest daughter, is cold and somewhat haughty. Quite snobbish, really. Her voice reflects that about her nature. It is very polished, smooth and cool as a silver ring.
And good old Mrs. Patmore, the redheaded cook, has a brilliantly thick accent, very rough and unrefined. She calls things as she sees them and can be quite bossy. A blue-collar woman who has worked hard her whole life and doesn’t expect anything else.
The blending and contrasting of their voices as the various characters in the show interact, to me, bring out their characters even more strongly. Their accents, tones, phrases, et cetera show more layers to them as people than what is spelled out for the viewer to know verbatim. Again, translating concepts such as Irishman migrated to England, or double-talker into audible sound-pictures that we can hear and apply to the various people.
Like I said earlier, I don’t know if the voices were planned. But the costumes in Les Mis were. The attention to detail impressed me very much, and left me wondering…what am I doing—what are we as writers doing—to shape and mold our characters on even the subliminal levels that not every person may see? What are we doing to inform our readers about our character being displaced from his homeland, or her lack of schooling, in a way that doesn’t spell it out for them in a fashion that is too straightforward?
It’s something to think about.