I’ve continued watching Downton, as time permits. It has moved a little out of the rut that it had fallen into when I did my last post. But I have to admit, the main frustrations I have with it (and with the villains in particular) remain.
Still, it’s set in a period and against a backdrop I particularly enjoy. If you’re a fan, something like Upstairs Downstairs is one of the more obvious comparators. I remember watching some of that, and being initially engaged, before losing interest for some reason, many years ago. Here are some other films and shows that evoke elements of Downton–and which sustained my interest throughout.
Brideshead Revisited (the 1981 miniseries)
As mentioned last week, this is set slightly later–in the 1920s–but is a beautiful, evocative, sad, exquisitely depicted series about the Flyte family and their struggles with questions of faith, guilt and redemption. It is darker than Downton Abbey but is oh-so-wonderful. Highly recommended.
A Room With A View
Based on Forster’s novel, this beautifully adapted Merchant Ivory production is gently satirical of the prevailing attitudes, mores, personalities and conventions of the gentry in early 20th century England. My one quibble with it would probably be that Julian Sands and his somewhat quirky mannerisms do little for me. But I still found this film to be quite delightful. And as always Maggie Smith–this time as the perpetually martyred, passive aggressive poor relative–is entertainingly engaging.
Another Merchant Ivory adaptation of a Forster novel. I found this film hauntingly beautiful–the cinematography is lovely and many of the frames look almost like paintings. There is also a lot of male beauty on display, and this is also poetically depicted. The novel was only published posthumously and while it isn’t precisely a coming out story, it does deal with Maurice’s struggles with his sexuality as he faces heartbreak and embarks upon an oft-painful journey to self-acceptance.
I didn’t actually like this film as much, but since I’m on Forster and Merchant Ivory, I thought I’d mention it all the same. This is the darkest of the three–and while I don’t mind dark, this somehow felt edged and ominous in a way that didn’t particularly resonate with me. It focuses on class tension, again in the early twentieth century. I found it ultimately unsatisfying.
To Serve Them All My Days
I saw this series years and years ago, but I remember really liking it. The television series is an adaptation of an R. F. Delderfield novel, and is the story of David Powlett-Jones, a young man just returned from the trenches and suffering from shell shock, as they called it then (PTSD in our current parlance), who finds work as a teacher in an English public school (what we’d call a private school in the americas). The series follows his life, as he learns to heal, deals with students, love, loss and life in general.
This is more of an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery, set in the 1930s, but there are definitely common elements, from the eponymous country manor and the centrality of both upstairs and downstairs characters, to the presence of… you guessed it, Maggie Smith. This isn’t what you’d call a warm story with delightful characters, however.
All Creatures Great and Small
Also set in the 1930s, and with a rather different backdrop to the hereditary country manor. The common element here for me is that sense of comfort. The good characters are reliably good, despite their foibles and eccentricities. I must also say that unlike my frustrations with Downton and some of the characterizations, here there are few villains. It’s just episodes in the life of a country vet, with the associated challenges of dour farmer clients, awkward courtships and the like. This isn’t normally my sort of thing, but even re-watching a number of the early episods again recently, I found it really engaging, no doubt because the characters felt so loveably–and frustratingly–real. Doctor Who fans may also enjoy seeing a young Peter Davison as Tristan.
That’s my list for the moment. Sometimes the connections are tenuous–more about an overall “feel” than particulars of setting or period (e.g. All Creatures). I expect there are many other films and series I’ve missed–feel free to weigh in with your comments!