In the week following the Downton Abbey premiere, some disappointed killjoys notwithstanding, I probably don’t have to do much to sell you on the idea of watching period dramas. They’re a hobby/comfort food of mine, these only-somewhat-highbrow historical pageants, usually starring British actors and just as often tied to the BBC. Sometimes people ask if I long to be dressed up in fancy corsets and mooning about drawing rooms, if that’s what draws me to them. I don’t think so. I think what attracts me personally is the self-conscious sort of grandeur these things always have, a grandeur which is missing from most of our contemporary depictions of our lives.
I would be remiss not to mention, of course, that these films are marketed to women and tend to be female-centric, and it’s not like there’s a wealth of that in the culture, so maybe this is a starving-hound-seeks-out-hollow-bone thing. Oh well!
In making this list of my 30 favorites from the past 30 years, I have employed the following rules: first, in general nothing set after 1950 counts as a period drama just yet in my eyes. I think there has to be somewhat more than marginal distance from the past to achieve the title of “period piece.” Further, I cut out Westerns and war movies, even if they do try to engage us with the past; they just have different generic conventions. I also, if the film was a historical or literary adaptation, limited myself to just one film that covered either the same period or book. No television shows were allowed. And nothing released before 1980, just to keep this to manageable size and comfortable for modern tastes. And no Shakespeare in Love, out of my respect for my long-held rule of excluding all things Gwyneth-Paltrow-related from my consciousness.
If there is any entertainment figure on this earth greater than Emma Thompson I know not who he or she be. Listen, even Meryl Streep concurs. And this is the ur-Emma Thompson text, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel in which she’s just a smidge too old to play the protagonist Elinor Dashwood — but who cares, this is such a delicious slice of Austen fangirling that one forgives it. Hugh Grant is a weak link as Edward Ferrars, but Alan Rickman intoning, “Oh give me some occupation or I shall run mad,” and Imelda Staunton charging across a drawing room in excitement more than make up for that.