Every January, American television viewers are gripped anew by an irresistible British obsession — the drama of “Downton Abbey.”
Dripping with refinement and seething with repression, the series’ fifth season is in full swing, with its sixth episode set to air Sunday on PBS, tantalizing us with the answers to such questions as:
Will Lady Edith ever be happy?
What exactly is the history between the Dowager and royal Russian refugee Prince Kuragin?
What’s Thomas up to this time? And why is Lord Grantham such a jerk?
Whether you’re still catching up on the show, tuning in Sunday for the latest episode, or have already binge-watched the whole season (it was made available on DVD in late January), one can never get enough of “Downton.”
Whether you’re waiting for your weekly dose of the British drama or are hunkering down for the year-long wait until next season, here’s a list of movies to tide you over.
“Gosford Park,” 2001: A murder mystery set at an English country manor in the 1930s, “Gosford” is a wickedly clever prototype to “Downtown Abbey,” dripping with juicy upstairs-downstairs intrigue. Directed by Robert Altman and penned by “Downton” writer-creator Julian Fellowes, the comedy-drama will seem awfully familiar to fans of the series, right down to the presence of the deliciously snarky Dame Maggie Smith.
“The Remains of the Day,” 1993: One of the highlights of “Downton” is the lively interaction between set-in-his-ways head butler Carson (Jim Carter) and unflappable housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, this exquisitely tense Merchant Ivory drama depicts a similar, albeit more torturous, relationship between a loyal-to-a-fault butler (Anthony Hopkins) and frustrated housekeeper (Emma Thompson) working side by side at the estate of a Nazi sympathizer.
“The Age of Innocence,” 1993: If you’re fascinated by the elaborate etiquette and strict ritual observed by the residents of Downton, you’ll be mesmerized by the opulent dinners, painstakingly choreographed balls and rigid social statutes sumptuously observed, down to the tiniest detail, by director Martin Scorsese. Though it’s set in turn-of-the-century New York, the film’s characters, including Daniel Day-Lewis’ stifled gentleman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s scandal-ridden countess, could be distant relatives of the Crawley family.
“The Young Victoria,” 2009: “Wild” director Jean-Marc Vallee’s romantic portrait of a passionate, young Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) and her courtship with her beloved Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) doesn’t have a lot in common with “Downton.” It does, however, feature one of the best screenplays penned by Fellowes, whose gift for witty repartee and boldly re-creating the manners of the British aristocracy is on full display here. Plus, it showcases a wardrobe full of amazing costumes, just like “Downton.”
“Mrs. Brown,” 1997: While the upstairs-downstairs worlds of Downton Abbey rarely collide, there are a few instances in which class boundaries are blurred — when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) takes comfort from old friend Carson, for instance, or underbutler Thomas (Rob James-Collier) involves the unwitting Crawleys in his self-serving schemes. In “Mrs. Brown,” class lines are crossed to an entertaining extreme when the grieving Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) gets a little too cozy with a member of her household staff (Billy Connolly) at Scotland’s Balmoral Castle. “Downton”-like drama ensues.
“Brideshead Revisited,” 2008: SPOILER ALERT! A certain future suitor to Lady Mary stars in this 2008 remake of the beloved 1981 miniseries. Just as “Downton” is preoccupied with the precariously poised aristocracy in the waning days of the British empire, so this adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel vividly depicts a seductive but endangered way of life, just before World War II. The doomed friendship between Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), his Oxford friend Sebastian (Ben Wishaw), and Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) shares common ground with the repressed relationships of “Downton.”
“The Great Gatsby,” 2013: One of the best things about this season of “Downton” is the 1920s setting with jazz music on the radio, back-alley speakeasies, a certain much-raved-about haircut and, of course, the clothes. All those smart, little hats, beads and glittering flapper gowns are to die for! Prolong your Roaring ’20s fix, courtesy of director Baz Luhrmann’s highly caffeinated version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Cary Mulligan as object of his obsession Daisy.
“A Room With a View,” 1985: The 1920s are certainly lively, but perhaps you find yourself missing the stately early days of Downton and the more dignified Edwardian period. Revisit that era with this Merchant Ivory drama, starring Helena Bonham Carter as a heroine very much like Lady Mary, torn between propriety and passion. As a bonus, our own Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) pops up as Carter’s chaperone on an eye-opening trip to Italy.
“The Servant,” 1963: Conniving Thomas has got nothing on the butler at the center of this bizarre black-and-white drama. When a London bachelor (James Fox) hires help in the form of the sinister Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), the tables are turned as servant exploits master.
“Albert Nobbs,” 2011: Glenn Close received an Oscar nomination for her gender-bending role in this drama about the staff of a posh hotel in 19th-century Dublin. Her convincing turn as a woman who poses as a man in order to work as a butler received a lot of attention. Just as compelling, however, is the film’s use of gender confusion to explore how members of the working class suppressed their identities in service to the ruling class.