Stephen Arnell

10 films about the upper classes

10 films about the upper classes
Brideshead Revisited (2008), Image: Shutterstock
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Emily Mortimer’s BBC1 adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s classic The Pursuit of Love is proving a hit with viewers, demonstrating that the antics of our social betters continue to fascinate many of us.

Downton Abbey may have helped pave the way for this interest, but there is far more to the upper classes than Julian Fellowes’ occasionally jejune televisual guidebook to snobbery, etiquette, and unforgivable social faux pas.

Without further ado, ten movies where we ‘Non-U’s’ are given a privileged insight into the lives of the ‘U's’.

The Scandalous Lady W (2015) Amazon Buy Only

Natalie Dormer (GoT/The Tudors) plays the real-life aristocrat Seymour Fleming (1758-1818), who became Lady Worsley on her unhappy marriage to Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet of that name.

Lady Worsley’s behaviour was shocking, even for those decadent time – with multiple lovers, venereal disease and a descent into the life of the Demimondaine. At one time, her cuckolded husband was said to have humiliated Worsley by displaying his unwitting wife naked when bathing, a practice apparently known as Candaulism.

Worsley outlived her rather useless other half, managing to reclaim her considerable fortune and bag a much younger husband to boot.

Natalie Dormer is currently developing Vivling, a mini-series about the actress Vivien Leigh, who, like Lady Worsley, had a complicated marriage (Leigh to Laurence Olivier) and suffered accusations of nymphomania.

Madame Bovary (2014) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

This latest version of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel sees bored country doctor’s wife Madame Bovary (Mia Wasikowska) follow her caprices to social disgrace and financial ruin when she seeks the attention of the wealthy and rakish Marquis d'Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green).

When unceremoniously dumped by the jaded aristo, Bovary’s social pretensions and carefully cultivated airs and graces lead to a tragic ending when she embarks on another liaison.

Reviews of Sophie Barthes’s film were mixed, but on the plus side, the movie looks great, and performances are solid, with a supporting cast that includes Paul Giamatti, Rhys Ifans and Henry Lloyd-Hughes, who plays the unfortunate Dr Bovary.

Flaubert’s book has been filmed seven times previously as a movie, with two TV series versions and was also the inspiration for David Lean’s longwinded slog Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

The Duchess (2008) Amazon Rent/Buy

A return to the scenario of The Scandalous Lady W, with another story of a female noblewoman trapped by the English patriarchy of the eighteenth century.

The complicated marriage of Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) to William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) also includes his illegitimate daughter Charlotte and later his mistress Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell). When Georgiana seeks solace in the arms of politician (and future PM) Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) things really kick off.

Saul Bibb’s movie is well mounted and occasionally touching, with committed performances from the lead actors.

Georgiana was of course an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales; in 1941 Deborah ‘Debo’ Mitford married Lord Andrew Cavendish.  On the death of his older brother, the couple became Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Brideshead Revisited (2008) BBC iPlayer

Otherwise known as the CliffsNotes guide to Evelyn Waugh’s Rococo Catholic novel, this condensed version is OK, but entirely superfluous compared to the excellent Granada series.

At least writer Andrew Davies fought his usual urge to lather the movie in onscreen sex, so if you were in search of a graphic depiction of what Waugh in the novel termed ‘naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins’ you may go away feeling short-changed.

Mind you, the cast is pretty good, including familiar faces Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder), Ben Whishaw (Sebastian), Hayley Atwell (Julia), Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain), Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain), Greta Scacchi (Cara), Jonathan Cake (Rex) and Patrick ‘DS Chisholm’ Malahide (Ryder senior).

For some absurd reason, the BBC have decided to remake the TV series, presumably DG Tim Davie’s pet policy of ‘landmark shows’. Why waste the cash when everybody knows the original series cannot be bettered?

Bright Young Things (2003) – My5, Amazon Rent/But and full movie available on YouTube

Closer to the setting of The Pursuit of Love, Stephen Fry’s attempt to bring another Waugh novel (Vile Bodies, 1930) to the screen was generally accorded a misfire.

Would-be novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) and fiancée Nina Blount (Pursuit writer/director/co-star Emily Mortimer) get into all manner of scrapes with wild parties, alcohol, cocaine, and the usual EW troupe of tiresomely eccentric characters.

In the case of Waugh, what works on the page in his comedies doesn’t always translate to the screen – see also Scoop (1987) and Jack Whitehall’s stab at Decline & Fall (BBC1, 2017).

No complaints about the cast though as Fry assembled an impressive company for BYT, including James McAvoy, Michael Sheen, Stockard Channing, Dan Aykroyd, David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Peter O'Toole, Richard E. Grant, John Mills, Harriet Walter, and Margaret Tyzack.

Vatel (2000)

Along with A Little Chaos (2014), Ridicule (1996) and 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, Roland Joffés’ Vatel attests to the disdain the Pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy felt towards both the Third Estate and lesser members of the nobility itself.

With a basis in fact, Gérard Depardieu plays François Vatel, Master of Festivities and Pleasures for cash strapped Prince of the Blood Louis, Grand Condé (Julian Glover) who exhorts his low-born major domo to pull out all the stops for the forthcoming three-day visit of King Louis XIV (Julian Sands).

A packed time for Depardieu, who manages over the course of his stay to create a spectacular event for the senses, fall in love with the king’s latest mistress (Anne de Montausier, played by Uma Thurman), invent crème Chantilly and then commit suicide.

Thurman of course played a similar pawn-like role in Dangerous Liaisons, whilst Tim Roth pops up as the King’s nasty henchman the Marquis of Lauzun, a part with echoes of his Archie Cunningham in Rob Roy (1995), villainous Febre in the later Musketeer (2001) and Oliver Cromwell in To Kill a King (2003).

Vatel’s cast also features ‘Britpop Poet’ Murray Lachlan Young, who puts in a (surprisingly?) strong performance as Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, the Sun King’s extravagantly homosexual sibling.

The Age of Innocence (1993) Amazon Rent/Buy

Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence represented a notable change of pace for the director, but under the stratified surface, his take on Edith Wharton’s novel of the same name revealed some abiding themes, namely betrayal, societal pressure, and sexual desire.

The tale of married wealthy lawyer Archer Newland’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) passion for unhappy American heiress and Countess-by-failed-marriage Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a trifle stodgy but is a handsome production, and one worth sticking with to the end.

Since TAOI, Scorsese has been emboldened to experiment with other non-mob related movies (when the financing could be found) including Kundun (1997), Hugo (2011) and The Silence (2016).

Remains of the Day (1993) Amazon Rent/Buy

To me, James Ivory’s version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winner of the same name is really a supremely ridiculous movie. Set in the 1930s, the picture takes a below stairs view of the aristocracy, with the staff of the Fascist sympathiser Lord Darlington (James Fox) acting as largely disinterested witnesses to history.

All the while, the glassy-eyed butler refuses to acknowledge the obvious attraction between himself and housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson).  Throughout the movie Stevens appears to labour under the misapprehension that the profession of butler is akin in its single-minded dedication to that of a samurai or warrior monk. The novel's unreliable narrator fails to translate onto the screen and the film therefore fails to capture much of the book's power.

Saying that, TROTD is a good watch if you’re in the mood for this kind of high-class hokum.

White Mischief (1987) Amazon Rent/Buy

Kenya’s Happy Valley Set were certainly a saucy crew, if Michael Radford’s factually based movie is to be believed.

Assorted toffs and millionaires decamp to colonial Kenya at the beginning of WWII, there to ostensibly help the war effort through closer management of their vast estates, but in reality, to party, take drugs, booze, and conduct orgies.

Into this moral cesspool steps archetypical upper class fool Sir Henry 'Jock' Delves Broughton (Joss Ackland), along with his stunning (and) much younger wife Diana (the beautiful Greta Scacchi).

To paraphrase the introduction to Hart to Hart, when Diana meets the dissolute but strapping Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll (Charles Dance) ‘it was murder’.

Well certainly when Jock Broughton realises that his new wife will soon be off with Erroll, along with his overly generous pre-nuptial agreement monies.  ‘No fool like an old fool’, they say.

Barry Lyndon (1975) Amazon Rent/Buy

To some, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon was a glacially paced meditation on the lack of social mobility in mid-to-late eighteenth century England.

To me, the initially gauche larrikin Redmond Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) doomed attempt to enter the upper ranks of the British aristocracy is a moving and beautiful motion picture, one which reveals something new on each viewing.

A wonderful score (Kubrick selected classical pieces and traditional airs), superb cinematography (John Alcott) and some excellent performances make this (for me) the director’s best film.