The long-awaited Downton Abbey movie finally arrives in theaters Friday, but in the meantime, here are seven other British period dramas which have a grand country house at the center of their storyline. Warning: some of them might leave you craving a traditional English “afternoon tea” after you watch them!
1. Gosford Park
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for his screenplay to this 2001 murder mystery movie, and initially conceived Downton as a spin-off. Though he later developed Downton into a standalone series, there are obvious parallels between the two: both take place in a grand English country house, both follow the action “upstairs” and “downstairs,” and both have a withering aristocrat played by Dame Maggie Smith! However, Gosford Park is a bit less cozy than Downton Abbey, offering some sharp social commentary as well as opulent production values and quintessentially English characters.
2. The Queen
Dame Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in this biographical drama written by Peter Morgan – future creator of The Crown. Cleverly, the story follows the Queen during one of the most difficult moments of her reign, the days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in which she was initially accused of misjudging the public mood by holing up at Balmoral, her Scottish country estate, and failing to acknowledge the Princess’s death publicly. Mirren’s portrayal of the evolving monarch feels both sympathetic and realistic, though the real-life Queen has never revealed if she’s seen the movie!
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in this fascinating 2013 film as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of 18th century British aristocrat Sir John Lindsay. Though she was born into slavery in the Caribbean, Belle was raised by her father at Kenwood House, his stately home in north London. She’s a woman in a unique and rather precarious position: treated as one of the family in private, but because of her color and illegitimate status, passed off as a servant around company. Directed by Amma Asante (A United Kingdom, The Handmaid’s Tale), Belle is a beautiful-looking period drama which explores issues of race, class, and social change in a way that feels totally fresh for the genre.
4. Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn Waugh‘s classic novel was famously adapted into a 1981 TV miniseries which won Emmy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA awards. This 2008 movie adaptation wasn’t quite as acclaimed, but it’s still worth watching for its sumptuous production values and fabulous cast. Ben Whishaw plays Charles Ryder, a middle-class student at the University of Oxford who becomes attracted to two members of the same aristocratic family, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Downton‘s Matthew Goode) and his sister Lady Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell). Ryder is also dazzled by their stunning home, Brideshead Castle, where he meets their formidable and sometimes disapproving mother, Lady Marchmain (Dame Emma Thompson). Brideshead Revisited isn’t an all-time classic period movie, but it’s perhaps a little underrated.
5. Howards End
Talking of Dame Emma Thompson, she won an Oscar for her performance in the 1992 adaptation of E.M. Forster‘s Howards End from producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. She plays Helen Schlegel, a cultured and intellectual Edwardian woman who becomes friends with Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), matriarch of a more conservative and business-minded family. Ruth intends for Margaret to inherit the family’s country estate, Howards End, but her dying wishes are ignored by her hard-headed family, at least until Ruth’s widower Paul (Sir Anthony Hopkins) begins to develop feelings for Margaret. This nuanced adaptation is British costume drama at its most classy and sophisticated.
This handsome adaptation of Ian McEwan‘s bestselling novel has a breakout performance from Saoirse Ronan, who at 13 became one of the youngest actors to be nominated for an Oscar. She plays precocious teenager Briony Tallis, who falsely accuses the son of her family’s housekeeper (James McAvoy) of committing a gruesome crime against older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) in the grounds of their country estate. Director Joe Wright follows the fall-out over six decades as Briony (played later by Romola Garai and then Vanessa Redgrave) grapples with the consequences of her actions. Very moving stuff.
7. The Remains of the Day
Thompson, Hopkins, Merchant, and Ivory reunite in this subtle and affecting adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Nobel Prize-winning novel. The action unfolds at Darlington Hall, a Downton-like country house which is still thriving in the years leading up to World War II, but declines rapidly in the 1950s. Hopkins plays head butler Mr. Stevens, who realizes too late that his dedication to Lord Darlington (James Fox) was misplaced, and also seems unable to confront his romantic feelings for Miss Kenton (Thompson), Darlington’s housekeeper. As you’d expect, The Remains of the Day would make a great Sunday afternoon “double bill” with Howards End.
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