Like gazing at an exposed cliff face where the strata of geological time are laid out before our eyes, the country house film creates a defined space where layers of social status, from aristocrats to servants, overlap and chafe against one another – a true microcosm of the society in which the story is set. 

Whether drama, comedy or even horror, the impetus of these films is often to assess whether the hereditary or self-made rich actually deserve their supremacy, and thus to question the societal pyramid established in the very fabric of the house and gardens.

Set at a university reunion at an English manor, Andrew Gaynord’s directorial debut All My Friends Hate Me is a British dramedy zeroing in on the escalating anxiety involved when a group of posh uni pals get back together after years apart in different orbits. Gangling protagonist Tom Stourton (also the co-writer) is concerned his experiences volunteering in a Lebanese refugee camp will place a wedge between himself and the old gang of varsity party animals. However, as the script cleverly builds conflict from a succession of forensically noted embarrassments and micro-aggressions, it gradually emerges that his own self-righteousness might be a significant part of the problem.

Since class is a national obsession, British titles predominate in the list of country house films below. But whether the setting is some imposing home counties mansion or estates on the banks of the Ganges or in rural China, there’s a common factor among the selection. In a setting emblematic of the privileged leisure class, the collision between masters and servants, haves and have-nots, proves both ideologically provocative and dramatically resonant.

All My Friends Hate Me is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 10 June 2022.

La Règle du jeu (1939)

Director: Jean Renoir

La Règle du jeu (1939)

1939, Europe is on the verge of war, but for a bunch of French aristos and their hangers-on there are more urgent matters. A famous pilot has publicised his romance with the wife of a marquis, who in turn wonders whether to come clean about his own long-running secret affair. What better to clear the air than a weekend of shooting and masked revels? But does the rampant deceit speak of a wider societal malaise, or is it a mark of class to hide misbehaviour behind a show of wealth and prestige? 

Now rightly regarded among the greatest films ever made, Jean Renoir’s first foray into independent production was a bumpy ride. The story’s whipcrack tonal shifts from farce to tragedy confused initial audiences. The print was hacked back to 81 minutes, the outbreak of the Second World War closed cinemas, and the film was banned anyway lest its sardonic attitudes dampen the national morale. Only in 1959 was a longer edit assembled to realise the full complexity of Renoir’s vision, still startling in the sophistication and modernity with which it puts the full spectrum of humanity on display.

Jane Eyre (1943)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Jane Eyre (1943)

The traumatic challenges of class mobility, 19th-century-style. Having barely survived brutal conditions at a charity-run school, Joan Fontaine’s impecunious orphan clearly draws the short straw when her first job is as governess at an inhospitable manor in remote northern moorland. The place is run down, the master is brooding and enigmatic, and what is it with the strange noises from the tower that no-one’s allowed to enter? 

Orson Welles’ grandstanding presence as volatile Edward Rochester has fostered assumptions that he had a directorial hand in this classic Hollywood literary adaptation, but let’s give actual director Robert Stevenson (later a Disney mainstay who helmed Mary Poppins) some credit for leaning in to the story’s gothic elements, and creating a shadowy, unsettling environment similar to the same era’s Val Lewton horror cycle. Thanks to co-adapter Aldous Huxley, the psychological and feminist threads in the material emerge lucidly, while the sinister undertow of colonial corruption ensures this still strikes chords with a post-Windrush viewership. For sheer dramatic intensity, composer Bernard Herrmann’s churning orchestral score surely equals his later work for Alfred Hitchcock.

The Music Room (1958)

Director: Satyajit Ray

The Music Room (1958)

In a colonial edifice by the shores of the Ganges, a Bengali aristocrat holds court in the gilded surroundings of his music room, enthralled by the shifting patterns of the region’s premier Indian classical musicians. He’s loved by his family and servants, while treating his nouveau-riche merchant neighbour with seasoned hauteur. Yet, since the river has subsumed the farming land that supplied his household’s wealth, respect and tradition alone will not refill his coffers. 

Completed after the first two parts of his celebrated Apu trilogy, this ambivalent character portrait also stands among Satyajit Ray’s finest achievements. The man’s stubbornness, his clinging to the status that cannot save him, is jaw-dropping. It’s over, but he just doesn’t get it. Yet Ray still refuses to condemn an individual whose love of music is so enveloping it has the power to transport him, momentarily at least, far away from his troubles. No Bollywood musical production numbers here; the instrumental and vocal performances are delivered concert-style and captured at length, which gives even western neophytes an idea of the intricate compositional processes at play.

The Innocents (1961)

Director: Jack Clayton

The Innocents (1961)

The absence of patriarchal authority defines this finest-ever screen version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where the fateful misadventures of the previous help inscribes the situation greeting governess Deborah Kerr’s arrival at an imposing country pile. His lordship (Michael Redgrave) remains far away in London, assigning her authority over his nephew and niece. But have the children somehow been tainted by these scandalous recent events? 

Director Jack Clayton pulls off the near-miraculous trick of selling the chilling visual impact of seemingly ghostly goings-on, while maintaining the possibility that everything’s being driven by Kerr’s overheating imagination. Into the void steps her repressed psyche, sensing devilry at every turn. We’re compellingly drawn in, not least by the casting of two extraordinary child actors (Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin) who flit from cherubic to demonic in the glint of an eye. The gardens at Sheffield Park, East Sussex, provide the location for one of the most haunting images in all of cinema history.

The Go-Between (1971)

Director: Joseph Losey

The Go-Between (1971)

In 1900, daily routine at a wealthy family’s Norfolk seat is a settled ritual, in which a 12-year-old schoolboy interloper from less monied stock must find his place. When everything around him tells him he doesn’t belong, master Leo (Dominic Guard) finds his own special status by running secret errands between the host’s eligible daughter (Julie Christie) and a hunky tenant farmer (Alan Bates), unaware of the full implications of the sexual and class transgressions he’s helping facilitate. 

The third of three examinations of Englishness by screenwriter Harold Pinter and (exiled American) director Joseph Losey, this adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s cherished 1953 novel of the same name is, like its source, at once straightforward and tantalisingly elusive. Is the story’s loss of innocence primarily heterosexual, or registering the adolescent stirrings of gay desire? Perhaps it’s the realisation of unyielding social stratification and his subordinate place within it. In the story’s framing device, the older protagonist is still numbed by recollection, suggesting the younger scenes should be taken as refracted memories rather than strict truths.

Mandingo (1975)

Director: Richard Fleischer

Mandingo (1975)

When social supremacy allows for behaviour unconstrained by any moral considerations, the results can prove ugly indeed, as in Pasolini’s notorious anti-fascist caution Salò (1975). The same strictures arguably apply for the pre-civil-war era of slavery in the American south, here depicted with unsanitised candour in what remains one of mainstream Hollywood’s most stringent exposures of its enduring stain on the nation’s psyche.

Director Richard Fleischer had approached controversial content before in The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971), but here daringly combines hothouse melodrama with an unblinking analysis of the carnage unleashed when one section of the populace assigns itself the right to commodify another race for profit. We see, harrowingly, how the slaves are bred and sold, yet remain far from meek in their resistance, while their white masters find their own marital relations poisoned by this bitter context. Falconhurst, the mansion built from the slavers’ ill-gotten gains, is a bare-walled shell with nary a book or painting on display – any illusions of southern grace and gentility die here. So much for Gone with the Wind (1939) and previous Hollywood soft-soaping.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Director: Peter Greenaway

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

Peter Greenaway moved on from his broadly theoretical previous work and engaged with narrative filmmaking to scintillating effect in this landmark affair for both director and British cinema in general. In 1694 the surest way of promoting personal prestige was to commission a painting of one’s country house, and what follows is a playful and perceptive amalgam of art-history lesson, social comedy and murder mystery – all unfolding to the joyous pulsations of Michael Nyman’s revelatory Purcell-meets-minimalism soundtrack. 

Anthony Higgins swaggers his way through Greenaway’s elaborate wordplay as the cocksure draughtsman who accepts a commission to create 12 views of a rural manor on the proviso that sexual favours will be on offer from the absent owner’s wife. While the artist remains adamant his work is a faithful rendition of each scene, the film probes the grey area between seeing and knowing – since Higgins fails to realise the presence of significant visual clues signalling a conspiratorial plot to enmesh landowner and draughtsman alike. The film’s elegant mischief holds up very well, and that’s Greenaway’s own hand doing the sketching.

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Director: Zhang Yimou

Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

The seemingly inflexible traditions of the English country house appear positively loosey-goosey compared to the set-up in this wealthy Chinese landowner’s regimented compound, circa 1920 – well before the Communists took power. Status here is expressed though polygamous marital arrangements: each of four wives has their own separate enclave, where the daily ceremonial raising of red lanterns indicates which of them is to be graced by the master’s presence that night. 

It seems almost anomalous that in 1990s China this story should still seem even relevant, yet while Zhang’s camera luxuriates in the exquisitely luxe clothes, fixtures and fittings, it also frames Shanxi province’s well-preserved Qiao Family Compound as the most ornate of prisons. As the fourth wife and latest arrival (Gong Li) soon discovers, competition between the spouses vying for attention creates an increasingly toxic atmosphere. That the women choose vicious confrontation over sisterly equanimity presumably endeared it to Chinese state censors, as an apparent parable about the excesses of institutional hierarchy. Zhang generates potent sympathy as events turn increasingly bleak, while any resemblance to internal power struggles within Jiang Zemin’s CCP remains, of course, entirely coincidental.

Howards End (1992)

Director: James Ivory

Howards End (1992)

In partnership, American director James Ivory, Indian producer Ismail Merchant and German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala proved sure guides to the most British of literary subjects, such as this handsomely turned-out adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The eponymous property isn’t the most lavish of country houses, but it’s a charming, leafy refuge passed down through the generations, only to become surplus to requirements when the rubber-baron husband (Anthony Hopkins) of the latest inheritor (Vanessa Redgrave) decides it’s more convenient to rent somewhere showier in central London. After the latter’s demise, a second marriage (to politically aware Emma Thompson) gives him the opportunity to put his wealth to more fruitful use, but all is not to be plain sailing. 

This steadily absorbing saga allows the characters’ sometimes contrary lived experiences to draw them towards certain conclusions, rather than having its mind already made up about everything in advance. As it goes, it effectively dramatises how the middle-classes might have the ideological empathy to do some good but lack the economic clout to make it happen, while – for the self-made rich – the opposite is true.

Gosford Park (2001)

Director: Robert Altman

Gosford Park (2001)

American director Robert Altman thought of turning a 1920s country house drama into an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, since all the suspects would be on hand, whereupon then working actor and aspiring writer Julian Fellowes was assigned to pen the script. Fellowes went on to win the Oscar (for best screenplay) with this, his first filmed work; as the son of landed gentry his insider’s knowledge provided us with a tangy authenticity we’d never quite seen on screen before.

It’s an hour before the discovery of the dead body, but we’re already deep into the nitty-gritty of life above and below stairs: the relatively well-off hustling their even wealthier counterparts for money, the talk among the servants as to who’s decent to work for and who’s a real horror show, and darker hints of the abuse of power and its painful legacy over time. A standout among the marvellous ensemble cast is Maggie Smith as the ultra-snob, cash-poor, acid-tongued Dowager Countess of Trentham, who also went on to steal the show in Fellowes’ subsequent, not-unrelated, TV phenomenon Downton Abbey.