Julian Fellowes, Oscar-winning savant of the British costume drama, loves to spin tales of silken-frocked young women chafing against the rigidity of their respective eras. With Downton Abbey, he conjured three aristocratic but ambitious sisters coming of age during the post-Edwardian upheaval. With 2009’s The Young Victoria, he imagined the early years of a queen learning to rule in her own right. With Vanity Fair (2004), Doctor Thorne (2016) and The Chaperone (2018), he adapted historical novels that examine women across generations grappling with gendered expectations of social propriety.
With his enticing six-part drama Belgravia, co-produced by ITV and Epix, Fellowes attempts a new approach: centering on the lives of older women who are decades beyond chasing love, wealth or matrimony. Instead, they’re generals sparring in a war of inheritances.
You wouldn’t know this, however, from Belgravia‘s marketing, which places a pair of comely 20-something castmembers in the foreground of its poster. Frankly, I didn’t give much of a hoot about baby-faced Mr. Charles Pope or his quixotic true love, Lady Maria Grey, who function as mere pawns in a complex “frenemiship” between nouveau riche Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) and noblewoman Caroline, Countess of Brockenhurst (Harriet Walter).
Greig and Walter, stalwart veterans of British stage and screen, lead a compelling ensemble in a story that hinges on the rattling collision of dying feudalism against rising industrialization. Ultimately, our hearts rest not with the inevitable marriage plot between the young lovers, but with the past injustices these women remedy.
Belgravia, named for the tony London neighborhood still home to Britain’s most affluent patricians, begins in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Sophia Trenchard (Emily Reid), the fresh-faced young daughter of a tradesman, has fallen in love with Lord Edmund Bellasis, the scion of one of England’s most prestigious families. Her mother, Anne (Greig), begs her daughter to remain practical — despite her husband’s newfound wealth, she knows that titled peers will never accept a girl of low birth into their folds.
At a ball, diffident Anne clashes with Edmund’s supercilious mother Caroline (Walter), and the outcome of that evening haunts both women 25 years later, after each family has returned to England and settled in up-and-coming Belgravia.
Unnerved by long-ago secrets and the possibility of scandal, Anne and Caroline form a prickly alignment in their elder years to protect the interests of their long-dead children. Caroline and her husband Peregrine, Earl of Brockenhurst (Tom Wilkinson), fear for the legacy of their household if Peregrine’s gambler brother (James Fleet) and caddish nephew (Adam James) get hold of their fortune after the Earl passes.
Meanwhile, Anne must contend with the mewling of her petulant dud of a son, Oliver (Richard Goulding), and his bored arriviste wife, Susan (Alice Eve). Unbeknownst to them all, the Trenchards’ venal staff plot with enemies to undo the family in exchange for some coin. At the center of it all is a mysterious wunderkind named Charles Pope (Jack Bardoe), whose fate is more important to each of these characters than his angelic “Mary Sue” personality is to the plot.
A compact story laced with intrigue, Belgravia is murkier and less delicate than Downton, allowing characters to venture to some dark places in their souls. (The score, however, sounds exactly like Downton‘s. Every time another cascade of swelling violins started, I couldn’t help but cackle.) Anne must constantly relive the tragedy of her daughter’s death, entrenching herself in guilt for her own complacency, while the Bellasis family helplessly watches one of their own sink into the violence and despair of gambling addiction.
Expect some adultery and attempted murder, although the male insecurity here might be the scariest of all vices. I frequently found myself open-jawed reacting to all the winding machinations, squealing to my husband, “What’s going to happen next?!” at the end of each fast-paced episode. While a pat deus ex machina nearly dims the denouement, Belgravia is worthwhile for the performances alone.
Greig and Walter make a fine duo as foils who appear sisterly thanks to their similarly long faces and sharp beauty. Both actresses are masters of range, Greig a sitcom doyenne known for the cult comedies Black Books, Episodes and Friday Night Dinner, and Walter a tigress with supporting parts on Succession, Killing Eve and The Spanish Princess. In Belgravia, Greig shines as a traumatized mother trying to make right with the past, while Walter flings her claws in all directions but that of her nephew’s reluctant fiancée, Lady Maria Grey (Ella Purnell), a spirited young woman trapped in a corset.
Greig shares particularly sneering chemistry with Alice Eve, who plays the social-climbing (but lonely) daughter-in-law whom, by looks alone, Anne obviously cannot stand. Eve is so even-keeled as Susan that you wonder if her character is secretly evil or just dumb. Susan, however, ends up the character who surprises you most. The only actor I feel disappointed for is poor Richard Goulding, who is so uproarious as a slack-jawed Prince Harry on the royal satire The Windsors that it’s a shame he’s relegated to playing such a dour human gas bubble here.
If you can tolerate period dialogue peppered with modern idioms, you’ll find a zippy and engaging soap in Belgravia. (“Let it go!” one young woman shouts to her mother, which doesn’t quite feel like 1840 to me, though I’m no linguistic historian.) It may not have the franchisable longevity of Fellowes’ magnum opus, but it’s escapist fantasy all the same.
Cast: Tamsin Greig, Harriet Walter, Alice Eve, Tom Wilkinson, Adam James, Ella Purnell, Philip Glenister, Richard Goulding, Saskia Reeves, Paul Ritter, Jack Bardoe, Tara Fitzgerald, Bronagh Gallagher, James Fleet, Emily Reid
Executive producers: Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame, Nigel Marchant, Liz Trubridge
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Epix)