To celebrate the release of Downton Abbey—the movie, we take a look at some of the greatest stately homes on film
For all that modern Britain might like to present itself as a thrusting and vigorous sort of place, the rest of the world still clings to the idea that this is a land of tweed and social deference.
You can blame the likes of Downton Abbey for that; the ITV show about the residents of a country house in the earlier part of the last century is a huge global favourite.
And now it follows in the footsteps of earlier TV hits like—er—Are You Being Served and On The Buses by making its way to the big screen. Early word about the film—which concerns a regal visit to the eponymous mansion—is promising, so at least it's going to be better than Holiday On The Buses.
Anyway, we could hardly let this plum opportunity pass us by: what better excuse for a look at some other cinematic stately homes? If you'd care to join us, grab your National Trust card and we can enjoy a guided tour of some of the most gilded buildings that the movies have to offer...
La Règle du jeu
There are some film buffs who'll tell you that this is the best film ever made, but don't let that put you off. Directed by Jean Renoir (son of painter August), it's a good deal more entertaining than its reputation as a critical fave might suggest.
It's set during a weekend retreat at a large country house and concerns the petty (and not so petty) squabbles of the residents, servants and guests alike. It was made in 1939, on the eve of war, and there's a school of thought that takes it as a portrait of idle European society dancing on the edge of a volcano, but it's so skilfully directed that you don't need to bother with that: enjoy the chaotic farce, then weep as it turns into tragedy.
What is a stately home without ghosts? All the best houses have them—the tormented souls of spurned lovers (or similar), destined to wander the corridors and spook the visitors.
The ghosts in The Innocents will certainly put the willies up you. It's adapted from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and has Deborah Kerr as a governess taking charge of a couple of children who live in a grand gothic pile (played by Sheffield Park in Sussex). Her predecessor (and that predecessor's lover) died in mysterious circumstances and the children—a most peculiar pair—might be in contact with their spirits.
It's worth noting that Michael Winner made a characteristically crass prequel to this delicate tale. The Nightcomers is an unnecessary film, although it's worth it for the frankly incongruous sight of Marlon Brando sharing a screen with Thora Hird...
Taken from a hugely admired novel (by LP Hartley) and decked out with the sort of production design that's almost calculated to get nominated for awards, it would be easy to think of The Go-Between as a typical bit of respectable, but ultimately safe, British film.
But wait! The script was by Harold Pinter and it was directed by Joseph Losey, men with an aversion to the traditional and polite. It might be set in a large country house (where the main character, a young lad called Leo, is a guest), but that location is a forum where the class system—and especially the abuses of power it facilitates—can be questioned. Sure, the house and grounds are beautiful but look beyond the surface and you see something less attractive.
If this list is Anglo-centric, let's not forget that huge houses are not the prerogative of the British toffs alone. “Grey Gardens” in the name of a 14-bedroom house in four acres of land built on Long Island in 1897. That, though, was a long time before this documentary was made.
As Albert and David Maysles filmed, it was home to Edith Beale, and her daughter, also Edith; they were minor American royalty (cousins to Jacquline Kennedy-Onassis) and yet were now living in a refined sort of squalor, not able to afford renovations and doomed to exist in the shadows of their glory days. You couldn't ask for a better metaphor, but the film never labours it. Instead, it is a poignant portrait of a class out of time.
Sir Henry at Rawlinson End
By the end of the 1970s, many impoverished aristocrats were making a living by throwing open the doors of their ancestral homes to the great unwashed. It is very much to be hoped that Rawlinson End was not amongst them, for fear of what might befall any visitor.
Created by former Bonzo Dog Doo-dah band frontman Vivian Stanshall, Sir Henry Rawlinson is a rum old cove. He is perpetually sozzled, he keeps German POWs in his garden years after the war ended and the house is haunted by his brother Hubert—and will be, until the unfortunate ghost puts some trousers on.
This is the great antidote to Britain's heritage industry, a properly absurd fantasia about the upper classes; what gets called “madness” in ordinary folk is “eccentricity” in blue-bloods...
The Draughtsman's Contract
Mind, this film is pretty “eccentric” too. It was the second film of one Peter Greenaway, one of the great iconoclasts of British film, and sets out his stall from the start—ravishing visuals, slightly bonkers plotting, and a keen interest in matters carnal. It's set in the 1690s and the titular draughtsman is hired to create 12 illustrations of a grand mansion. In exchange, he will enjoy the “favours” of the lady of the house.
It's a compellingly odd film, and an uncommonly handsome one—like a Vermeer or Rembrandt come to life. What's more, it's topped off with a sensational score. This was composer Michael Nyman's second film too and there are some of us who still rate it amongst his best.
The Remains of the Day
Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (collectively known as Merchant/ Ivory) used to cop a lot of flack back in the day; they specialised in the sort of handsome, respectable adaptations that the likes of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End and The Draughtsman's Contract were kicking against.
Still, since many of their films featured country houses, it would be remiss not to include one—and, happily, The Remains of the Day earns its place here on merit. Adapted from a more recent source than usual—Kazuo Ishiguro's novel won the Booker Prize only a couple of years before—it focuses more on the servant class than their masters, specifically the butler Stevens, played by Anthony Hopkins and housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). They work for Lord Darlington, who has an interest in foreign affairs. But it is the 1930s, and his Lordship's judgement isn't as clear as it might seem.
Alan Parker once called Merchant/ Ivory “The Laura Ashley school of filmmaking,” and there's some truth in that. Remains of the Day, though, is so much more.
These days, Gosford Park may be better known as the inspiration (if not the actual template) for Downton Abbey—both written by Julian Fellowes, they're each set in the stately home of their respective titles, looking at staff downstairs and their employers upstairs. Oh yeah, and they each have Maggie Smith on especially imperious form.
But Gosford Park is more than a trial run, mainly because it was directed by Robert Altman. Unlike Fellowes, Altman was a stranger to this world; he was American and brought a sceptical eye to proceedings. Moreover, he was very fond of improvising: Lord Fellowes might have copped an Oscar, but his script was only a starting point for Altman.
Still, fans of Downton should check it out. As should those who are more sceptical—it's Altman at the top of his game, and that's always worth a look.
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.