In 2011, show creator Julian Fellowes introduced the world to Downton Abbey, the fictional Yorkshire estate where the Crawleys, the aristocratic heirs of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, strive to maintain their noble legacy in the face of an ever-changing world. For six years, audiences around the world watched faithfully as the family and their servants shepherded their beloved estate through a world rocked by new technologies, a World War, and seismic social changes. On September 20, the film Downton Abbey brings back the entire cast to prepare for a visit in 1927 from the King and Queen of England.
The place Downton Abbey, the noble estate with a grand soaring façade, is actually played by Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. For Fellowes, "Highclere is a unique architectural statement and tells us so much more about the wonderful confidence of the late Victorians and the confidence of high Empire." But the home it represents, like so many grand estates from film and literature, ultimately resides in the imagination of its fans. For us, Downton Abbey is the larger-than-life stage on which so many passionate romances, family dramas, political debates, and occasionally tragedies, have unfolded. As we get ready for Downton Abbey to open in theaters, we look back on other remarkable films, from Pride & Prejudice to Gosford Park, whose historic manors are as fondly remembered as the characters they housed.
Pride & Prejudice | Pemberley
In Pride & Prejudice, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic of romance and real estate, Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) finds her happiness finally in the arms of Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) and his grand estate at Pemberley. Indeed in the novel she acknowledges that Mr. Darcy claimed her heart after “my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.'' Despite its stately veneer of fancy dances and garden parties, the world of Pride & Prejudice, much like that of Downton Abbey, is shifting from larger historical forces. “Society at that time was changing,” explained director Wright. “The French Revolution has just happened, and the aristocracy are terrified that the lower classes are going to rise up in arms against them.” But Pemberley, which is played by Chatsworth House—the estate on which many believe Austen based Darcy’s residence—provides to Elizabeth and Darcy alike a symbol of stability, continuity, and grace.
Jane Eyre | Thornfield Hall
In Jane Eyre, Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's gothic romance, the title character (Mia Wasikowska) meets her future husband, Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender), when she arrives at Thornfield Hall to accept the position of governess. For Clothes on Film, “Thornfield is a character in the book, its beauty, lush gardens and picturesque vistas pushing Jane and Rochester together then suddenly releasing its dark secrets to pull them apart again.” As captured by cinematographer Adriano Goldman, the house—which is mostly played by Haddon Hall—often seems to express the emotions that the characters themselves are unable to utter. Overseen by the vigilant Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench), the house’s dark corridors and candle-lit rooms form a shadowy mystery. But come spring, the estate blossoms with love and hope.
Atonement | The Tallis Estate
In Atonement, Joe Wright brings to life Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel of England between the Wars. The film opens on the Tallis’ stately home in 1935 on the hottest day of the summer during which a simple lie will permanently alter the lives of Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley), her younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son. The 19th century mansion Stokesay Court in Shropshire was chosen to play the Tallis estate with the production team constructing the great fountain from the novel as well as rebuilding spaces to fill out the fictional estate. Narratively, production designer Sarah Greenwood needed the house to do two things: "first to capture the class aspirations and limitations of the characters and second, to set the physical and emotional climate of the scene." The film fulfilled both goals perfectly. For The San Francisco Chronicle, Atonement takes the “world of green fields and sculptured gardens…a setting that we think we know, and uses it for an examination of a host of dark impulses, such as jealousy, lust, cruelty and deceit.”
The Little Stranger | Hundreds Hall
Adapted from Sarah Waters' novel, Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger centers around eerie goings on at Hundreds Hall, a grand estate now in decline along with its aristocratic family, which includes Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson), her brother Roderick (Will Poulter), and their mother (Charlotte Rampling). When Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a local physician much enamored of the great house, comes to investigate, it becomes clear that the estate is haunted as much by history as by supernatural elements. “This post-war period was pivotal because those old ideas of class were beginning to crumble,” explains Abrahamson. To showcase this decline, production designer Simon Elliott used two locations to serve as a before and after of the house. “Newby and its beautiful lawn serves as Hundreds in 1919 while Langleybury is both the front and the forlorn side garden for post-war Hundreds Hall,” explains Elliott.
Gosford Park | Gosford Park
When Robert Altman expressed interest in making an “Agatha Christie-like country house murder mystery” for his next film Gosford Park, finding the right house was going to be crucial. While the film was shot in multiple locations, Wrothman Park in Hertfordshire represents the titled country home of Sir William (Michael Gambon) and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), the estate where weekend guests (played by the likes of Maggie Smith, Ryan Phillippe, Bob Balaban, and Jeremy Northan) arrive for a pheasant shoot, but stay for a murder. The upstairs guests are ably assisted by the folks downstairs (including Helen Mirren, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, and more). To get the details just right, Balaban, who was also the film's producer, reached out to Julian Fellowes, an up-and-coming writer with an encyclopedic knowledge of class structure and etiquette. Fellowes, who'd grown up around this aristocratic world, was was more interested in making a name for himself than living off his family’s. “If you have the misfortune to be born into a generation which must earn its living, you might as well do something amusing,'' his father told him. Fellowes more than lived up to his dad's directive, winning an Academy Award® for Best Original Screenplay for a story that, according to Salon, has "a high degree of stylishness and fun" while at the same time imagining "its characters as human creatures with flaws and foibles and insecurities."