6 Beloved Period Films and Their Real-Life Historical Landmarks

A large Gothic style mansion with trees and green grass int he foreground Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. Photo by Richard Munckton via Wikimedia Commons.

The arrival of 2019 heralded one remarkable milestone for history buffs and pop culture enthusiasts alike: the release of the highly anticipated film adaptation of Downton Abbey. Fans of the acclaimed television series were reunited with the Crawley family as they prepare for a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. With such stately visitors, the film unsurprisingly delivered an over-the-top, extravagant view of aristocratic life in early-20th-century England.

Period films such as Downton Abbey are often favored for their ability to conjure a world that was previously confined to history books and paintings. In fact, countless productions have emerged in recent years, with fan-favorites including Outlander, The Crown, and many more. Period pieces, both film and television series alike, have the unique ability to transport audiences to a different time and place (and often much more lavish than the world we know today).

These pop culture relics may look more like fantasy than real life, as many of them feature castles, gardens, and other public spaces that can be easily visited by the public. From Elizabethan England to New York in the Roaring Twenties, we explore six of the best period films, their emblematic eras, and the iconic historical landmarks that brought them to life.

1. Shakespeare in Love (Rose Theatre)

While some of the most memorable period pieces come from William Shakespeare’s plays, the film Shakespeare in Love takes a fictional look at the bard himself by imagining what he and his love life might have been like. The result: a lively period piece that immerses audiences into the world of Elizabethan England.

About the Rose Theatre

Much of the film’s plot takes place in the Rose Theatre, which was home to many of Shakespeare’s early plays — however — the theater featured in the movie itself was actually a reconstructed set (which was later gifted to Dame Judy Dench upon completion of filming). The actual Rose Theatre was rediscovered in 1989 during a routine exploratory excavation. Naturally, this sparked international headlines and palpable buzz among the literary community. Thanks to a “Save the Rose” campaign and its supporters, you can now visit The Rose Playhouse in London. You can take a tour of the archaeological site, or even take in a performance. 

About the Elizabethan Era (1558–1603)

In Elizabethan England, portraiture of the noble class was the favored form of painting, while elaborate textiles and domestic silver were also popular. A pair of silver Elizabethan candlesticks or a portrait showing the decorative attire of the era would easily please fans of Shakespeare in Love.

2. Marie Antoinette (Palace of Versailles)

A view of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles

Versailles gardens view from “Parterre d’eau”. Photo by Paolo Costa Baldi. License: GFDL/CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are few people in history more synonymous with excess and opulence than Marie Antoinette herself. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the eponymous 2006 film directed by Sofia Coppola offers two hours of veritable eye candy. 

About the Palace of Versailles 

Nearly the entire film takes place in the Palace of Versailles, introducing audiences to its expansive gardens and ornate interiors. The film was granted permission to shoot on-site at Versailles — not a privilege granted to everyone — though it came with its own set of challenges. Because the palace is a registered historical monument, filming was strictly limited to Monday evenings so as not to disturb regular visitors. It’s no secret that admirers of Marie Antoinette, both the infamous historical figure and the eponymous film, can visit Versailles when they’re in France. One of the palace’s most iconic spaces is the Galerie des Glaces (The Hall of Mirrors), which was prominently featured in a ball scene in the film.

A remarkable Rococo interior with mirrored walls and gilt statues

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) in the Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France. Photo by Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

About the Rococo Period (c. 1715–1789)

Perhaps more than any other 18th-century monarch, Marie Antoinette was known for her exquisite, often over-the-top style. Subtlety did not play a part in the Queen’s wardrobe, which is why full skirts with elaborate gold textiles and rich colors were a permanent fixture of her daily routine. This paired well with the theatricality of the Rococo art movement, which emerged earlier that century. Rococo era art, such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing, is emblematic of Marie Antoinette’s style. Later that century, Rococo style had fallen out of favor due to its perceived frivolity.

3. Jane Eyre (Haddon Hall)

A large stone edifice with lush green rolling hills extending into the background

Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire, England. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2011 film, based on the acclaimed mid-nineteenth century novel by Charlotte Brontë, centers on the main character Jane Eyre and her relationship with Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall. Thornfield Hall is also where much of the exchange between the two characters takes place. The mansion is meant to be a gloomy setting, which corresponds well with the Gothic elements of the book.

About Haddon Hall

Though Thornfield Hall is a fictional estate, the interior and exterior shots used for the film can be visited today in real-life. Haddon Hall, the Medieval manor house used for the film, is situated just south of Derbyshire, England. Aside from touring the impressive gardens and historic hall, visitors can enjoy a plethora of events that take place throughout the year, including craft workshops and musical performances.

A large room with dark wooden paneling and natural light filtering in from a Gothic-style window

Banqueting Hall, Haddon Hall. Bakewell, Derbyshire, England. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

About Romanticism (c. 1800–1850)

It is perhaps unsurprising that a story steeped in romance was written during the tail end of Romanticism’s reign in fine art. Romanticists celebrated unbridled exploration of passion, sensitivity and imagination, and centered on the idea of the individual; undoubtedly some of the key characteristics that are also evident in Jane Eyre. William Blake is one of the best-known artists of this movement, whose works rejected reason and order in favor of imagination.

4. Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)

A large Gothic style mansion with trees and green grass int he foreground

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. Photo by Richard Munckton via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most identifiable part of the hit historical drama is the physical structure of Downton Abbey itself. In the fictional story, the Yorkshire country estate is home to the Crawley family and their servants as their lives are affected by some of the best-known historical events, including the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918.

About Highclere Castle

While Downton Abbey itself is a work of historical fiction, the actual structure used for filming both exterior and interior scenes does exist. Located in Hampshire, England, it is known in reality as Highclere Castle and is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family has lived there since 1679. Today, Highclere Castle is open to the public, and visitors can enjoy many activities including walking the gardens and sipping tea in their cafe. To view some real treasures, visitors should be sure to explore to their state rooms, which display historical portraits, 16th-century Italian embroidery, and Egyptian antiquities.

About Art Deco (1920s–1930s)

If you find yourself wanting to bring the look of Downton Abbey into your day-to-day life, look for Art Deco jewelry and design. Set in 1927, the film takes place during the height of the Art Deco era in England. During this time, Art Deco influenced everything from jewelry and furniture to architecture, cars, and fine art. Its ability to exude luxury and glamour will surely make you feel like you’re at home with the Crawley family. 

5. The Great Gatsby (St. Patrick’s Seminary)

St. Patrick’s Seminary. Photo by Pip Montgomery via Wikimedia Commons.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel The Great Gatsby is synonymous with the extravagance of the Roaring Twenties in New York. But when the 2013 film adaptation began production, director Baz Luhrmann, known for his flamboyant take on stories, chose to shoot the majority of the film’s scenes in his home country of Australia. Believe it or not, fans wanting to visit some of the locations that gave the film the semblance of East Coast American aristocracy will have to take a trip down under.

About St. Patrick’s Seminary

For the exterior of Jay Gatsby’s mansion — the setting for many a raucous party involving the main characters — St. Patrick’s Seminary in Manly, Australia was used. Built in 1889, it is no longer operating as a seminary but now houses the International College of Management, a high school, residential housing, and a children’s hospice.

Another memorable location in the film is the fantastical forest in which Nick Carraway’s understated home can be found. These scenes were shot at Blue Mountains, located about an hour outside of Sydney and very popular among hikers.

About Art Deco in New York  

New York in the 1920s was the epicenter of the American Art Deco movement, not unlike the same style that swept England in the aforementioned Downton Abbey. The style, characterized by geometric ornaments and the use of expensive materials, symbolized affluence and sophistication, neither of which are lacking in the film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “great American novel.”

6. A Single Man (The Schaffer House)

A mid-century modern home surrounded by trees

Photo by Elizabeth Daniels. Image courtesy Los Angeles Conservancy.

The 2009 film A Single Man, based on the novel of the same name, follows the life of a gay British professor in California in 1962. As the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, the film did not disappoint in epitomizing 1960s fashion and culture.

About the Schaffer House

The main character’s house epitomizes the essence of 1960s California. For the interior and exterior of the house, the Schaffer House was used. The Los Angeles-based mid-century marvel was designed by John Lautner, revered as one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. The home is a prime example of the modernist architecture that was popular at the time, with floor-to-ceiling windows and angular, wood-framed construction. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places and is located in Glendale, California.

About Pluralism in the 1960s

The arts during the 1960s in the United States went through a monumental period of growth and change. Pop art was perhaps best known for bringing attention to mass consumerism in America by creating works that drew inspiration directly from advertisements and television. On the other end of the spectrum, Minimalism reduced art down to simple, geometric shapes and served as a reaction against the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. Both were a result of the unstable social and political climate that is apparent in A Single Man.

Sources: Visit Britain | Highclere Castle | The Telegraph | The Rose Playhouse | The Met | National Geographic | Haddon Hall | Britannica