As I said about the reading list for Downton Abbey, I also meant to finish this list ages ago, but I kept finding new things to add! So by now you’ve probably seen the shocking season three finale and heard that a fourth season is in the works. What to do until then? Try watching one of these movies, mini-series, and TV shows! (And don't forget: you can always relive the first three seasons of Downton by checking them out from the library!)
When Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a 13-year-old aspiring writer, sees her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) at the fountain in front of the family estate, she misinterprets what is happening, thus setting into motion a series of misunderstandings and a childish pique that will have lasting repercussions for all of them. Robbie is the son of a family servant toward whom the family has always been kind. After the fountain incident, Briony reads a letter intended for Cecilia and concludes that Robbie is a deviant. When her cousin Lola is raped, she tells the police that it was Robbie she saw committing the deed. Atonement is based on the novel by Ian McEwan.
The action of this two part serial moves between 1910 and 1916, telling the story of Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne), a young Englishman who arrives in Amiens in Northern France to stay with the Azaire family and falls desperately in love with Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy). They begin an illicit and all-consuming affair, but the relationship falters. Years later, Stephen finds himself serving on the Western Front in the very area where he experienced his great love. As he battles amidst the blood and gore of the trenches he meets Jack Firebrace, who helps him endure the ravages of war and enables him to make peace with his feelings for Isabelle. Birdsong is based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks.
Call the Midwife (2012 - ?)
Another series presented on Masterpiece Theater is Call the Midwife. An intimate, funny, and true-to-life look at the colorful stories of midwifery and families in East London in the ’50s, it is based on the bestselling memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth. When Jenny Lee first arrives in Poplar, she knows nothing about hardship, poverty, and life itself. But Jenny is brought up to speed fast once she joins a team of midwives who provide care to the poorest women. This series is growing in popularity in the U.S., and is already a hit in the UK. Like Downton Abbey, this is a period piece set in England and also explores class distinctions.
Cranford (2007 - ?)
This series based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell takes a step further back in time, to the 1840s, but tackles similar issues of social change and class. In the village of Cranford lives a cast of middle-class characters: the kind, the gossipy, the earnest, the staid, the reformist, and the eccentric among them. At Hanbury Court lives Lady Ludlow, who rules‚ and plans to continue to rule‚ in the manner she has always known. Downton Abbey‘s upstairs/downstairs dynamic is here paralleled by the tension between estate and village life, and the settled lives of villagers and aristocrats alike contrast with the unknown future presaged by the coming of the railroad. With high production values, a sparkling cast, and a sensibility that closely matches that of Downton Abbey, this makes for equally grand viewing.
Enchanted April (1991)
You may remember a scene early in season two of Downton, in which Molesley (valet to Mathew) suggests to Anna that they read and discuss Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Although Anna declined the offer, this was a popular novel in that time. Its author, Elizabeth Von Arnim, would later write the best seller The Enchanted April, which was adapted into this film (with Joan Plowright, Polly Walker, and Miranda Richardson). Four women rent a chateau on a remote Italian island to try to come to grips with their lives and relationships. They explore the differences in their personalities, reassess their goals, and reexamine their relationships in a sisterly fashion.
Gosford Park (2001)
Set in England between the wars, this stylized movie (with a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey) adds spice to its finely honed observations about the wealthy and servant classes with a murder. While this is a darker work than Downton Abbey, the nastiness of Downton‘s characters Mary, Edith, Thomas, and O’Brien would not be out of place among those gathering at the estate of Sir William McCordle for a weekend hunting party. As the guests (and their servants) arrive‚ among them a host of titled personages (Maggie Smith appears here as well), an American actor, and an American film producer‚ connections and misalliances hatch, and Sir William is murdered. Viewers are treated to a marvelously sly story as the death is investigated.
Howards End (1992)
Based on the book by E. M. Forster, this Merchant Ivory Production (starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins) also focuses on class and social change at the start of the 20th century. Three families collide in this story: the Wilcoxes, a rich clan whose success in trade allows them to ascend to a life once only the privilege of the aristocracy; the three Schlegel siblings, who have a comfortable, upper-middle-class, bohemian life; and a lower-middle-class couple named the Basts. Various members of the Wilcox and Schlegel families interfere, with disastrous results, in the lives of the Bast family‚ and in one another’s lives as well. This is a more somber work than Downton Abbey but also has strong characterizations, historical details of social change, and‚ although there is no downstairs staff in this story‚ investigations of class.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
In another Merchant Ivory Production featuring the pairing of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, a rule-bound head butler's (Hopkins) world of manners and decorum in the household he maintains is tested by the arrival of a housekeeper (Thompson) who falls in love with him in post-WWI Britain. The possibility of romance and his master's cultivation of ties with the Nazi cause challenge his carefully maintained veneer of servitude. The Remains of the Day is based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
A Room with a View (1985)
When Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett (Downton’s Maggie Smith) find themselves in Florence with rooms without views, fellow guests Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and son George (Julian Sands) step in to remedy the situation. Meeting the Emersons could change Lucy's life forever when she develops feelings for George. Once back in England, how will her experiences in Tuscany affect her marriage plans, when she must choose between convention and love? A Room with a View is based on the novel by E.M. Forster and also features performances by Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975)
This long-running series is the grandmother of the English house series and an inspiration for Downton Abbey. As such, it should appeal to Downton fans for its similar time period and focus on class, character, setting, and sweeping social changes. Set in a large home in London, the story details the lives of the wealthy Bellamy family, headed by the politician Richard Bellamy (David Langton) and his wife, Lady Marjorie (Rachel Gurney), the daughter of the Earl of Southwold. Downstairs, a cast of characters that often steals the show from the Bellamys reigns supreme. The wide-ranging and evolving plot is complicated, engrossing, and smart. The series shares the same rich production values and fine acting as Downton, making it a perfect pairing for fans.
War Horse (2011)
Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the Great War, War Horse begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who tames and trains him. When Joey is sold to the British Cavalry and they are forcefully parted, the horse begins an extraordinary journey as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of those he meets—British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter. Eventually Albert enlists as a private, partly in hopes of finding Joey again. If your interest in Downton is for the WWI element, this film captures the realities of war as experienced by the soldiers. War Horse is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and the stage play by Nick Stafford.
Wives and Daughters (1999)
For many years, young Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) had lived a blissful sheltered life with her widower father. However, her world is shaken with the introduction of new acquaintances and situations. Molly becomes friends with a landed gentry family, which includes two brothers with very different temperaments. Meanwhile, her father marries a widow with a daughter close in age to Molly. Eventually, Molly becomes a trusted confidante for her new friends and family; but the secrets become burdensome, as the gossip begins to circulate about Molly herself. This four-part mini-series is based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell.