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.
This movie, like all Terrence Malick movies, is as strange as it is beautiful. The pacing is slow, but the shots are gorgeous. There’s a lot of long, searching looks exchanged by Q’orianka Kilcher and Colin Farrell, very little physical contact. In that sense it seems almost like it was directed by a teenage girl.
In this underrated film, Claire Danes stars as one of the first women to break into acting during the reign of King Charles II. As you may know, in that era women’s roles were played by men. Danes’ fictional Maria shakes that up, all the while striking up a romance with Billy Crudup’s Ned. The result is a very pretty and well-acted enactment of the complicated sexual politics of having men dress in drag, and women try to convince them that their stilted aping of the gentler sex is not so terribly convincing.
The 2002 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s novel starred Hugh Dancy as the titular character, but the performance that stays with you is Romola Garai’s as the spoiled-but-eventually-impoverished Gwendolen Harleth. A predecessor of pop culture’s great spoiled rich girls, like Buffy‘s Cordelia Chase, Gwendolen is willful and bright and suffers terribly for it. And Garai’s reenactment of her struggle is pitch-perfect, and certainly more psychologically interesting than Deronda’s quest for his perfect suffering lover, Mirah, at least by my lights. Why isn’t Romola Garai a big star? It bugs me.
Jane Campion’s adaptation of the Henry James book is hard to come by, these days. And when it was released the reviews were middling, largely because people always give Jane Campion middling reviews. Because they are wrong about Jane Campion! And wrong about the idea than an explicitly feminist aesthetic is somehow too “political” to be an aesthetic! Anyway. Nicole Kidman stars as Isabel Archer and John Malkovich as the man who marries her and subsequently ruins her life. Moral: Do not pass go, do not get married, women! It will make you miserable. Also the film is gorgeous and everyone in it is so achingly young-looking to our current eyes.
Emma Thompson triumphs again as the slightly androgynous painter Dora Carrington, a figure on the UK’s Bloomsbury movement, who falls in an idiosyncratic sort of love with Jonathan Pryce’s Lytton Strachey. Strachey was… really quite gay. I mean in the sort of way many of the men you have crushes on in high school, if you are a mildly intelligent and somewhat unique sort of young woman, always unquestionably are. But he and Carrington had an affair anyway, at least one of the heart. And all of the impatience and frustration of youth will be so recognizable to that class of young women. Plus: Bloomsbury, such a delightfully odd place in such a filmable way.
Philip Kaufman and Doug Wright’s film about the Marquis de Sade is the kind of thing you don’t want to sit around watching with your parents or your children. That is, unless you and your parents or your children are happy to openly discuss necrophilia. But particularly with Geoffrey Rush in the lead role, the film makes it easy to understand why de Sade’s writing have had the hold they have over the culture. He’s ribald and funny and hypnotic all at once. And there’s a decent performance by a very tortured and young-looking Joaquin Phoenix, to boot.
There are a few adaptations of Bleak House kicking around, because its plot is so complicated, and its critique of the long, slow grind of the probate system doesn’t exactly scream “box office sensation” to movie producers. But the 2005 miniseries the BBC put together will haunt you for years afterwards. Primarily that’s because of Gillian Anderson’s performance as the haunted Lady Dedlock, who gave up a lovechild at birth and has lived on to regret it. Who knew, when we all watched The X-Files, so long ago, that Scully would become one of the great treasures of historical dramas? (She’ll reappear below on this list.) No one. Anna Maxwell Martin, starring as the good but lost protagonist Esther, will also eat your heart.
This is another of those films that flew beneath the radar in the United States, although it did surprisingly well at the box office. It lacks, I suppose, the sort of attractive young woman that studio executives imagine usually draws people into period romances. But to make up for it, this film has Judi Fucking Dench, come on, starring as a Queen Victoria in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Her comfort comes from John Brown, a servant she befriends and eventually engages in a romance with that ends up alarming the entire palace.
Jane Campion’s retelling of the doomed love affair between the poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne is the most beautiful, romantic movie of the past few years, bar none. There’s a scene where a curtain blows in a window which is often the last thing I remember before I fall asleep at night. The absolutely sublime Ben Whishaw plays the dying Keats, and Abbie Cornish is the intelligent but reserved Fanny.
There aren’t a lot of great Frances Hodgson Burnett adaptations. Why is that? I know there’s a Secret Garden kicking around, but the highlight is this 1994 version of A Little Princess, where they tried to correct for the sometimes blatant imperialism and racism inherent in the premise of the 1905 children’s novel and came up with the kind of beautiful imagery in the above, when Sara Crewe dreams of her home in India. It won cinematography awards, this movie!
Kate Winslet is a frequent flyer in these films, but here’s one we don’t talk much about anymore: Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, an adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel about, you know, the obscure one. The whole aesthetic of it seems to have been organized around the color blue, and it’s wonderfully mopey. And because Jude the Obscure is one of Hardy’s attempts at depicting the tragedy of the late 19th-century female situation, in spite of the title, the strongest roles are women, here played by the aforementioned Winslet and Rachel Griffiths as Jude’s conniving, pig-slaughtering wife, Arabella.
This adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel was the celebrated director David Lean’s last movie. It deviates somewhat from the novel, in that some of the events depicted here happen offstage in the book, etc. But the performance of Judy Davis — another charter member of the Academy of Period Thespians, or she would be if such a thing existed — as the strident, uptight New Woman Miss Quested, is about as good a portrayal as any author could hope for.
The writer of Downton Abbey scripts a film directed by the director of Dallas Buyers Club about one of England’s greatest Queens; how can this not be great? There is a bit of a weak link in The Young Victoria, in the form of Rupert Friend’s performance as the beloved Prince Albert. Also, people have often said that there are too many deviations from the historical record in the film. But I like its smooth rhythm, Vallée’s trademark as a director, and if ever there was an actress born to play the sort of speak-from-the-diaphragm-in-your-nose type queens always are, it’s Emily Blunt. Plus: that velvet!
Judy Davis stars as the patron saint of all aspiring salonnières, Georges Sand. She was a novelist and memoirist in her own right but also the original lady-about-town, if town was early-19th-century France. Mandy Patinkin co-stars as one of her lovers. Enough said.
Those of you who only met Damian Lewis when he rose as the maybe-evil-maybe-not-evil soldier on Homeland will be delighted to find he has played less morally ambiguous characters in the past. He’s better at playing total evil, I think. And in 2002’s PBS adaptation of The Forsyte Saga, as Soames, an evil solicitor. Jilted by his wife, Irene (Gina McKee), he goes to all manner of trouble to make her life miserable, all the while making exquisite use of that tiny mouth of his.
That’s right, I am bringing you yet another Jane Campion suggestion! This is the acknowledged masterpiece, really more of a mood film than anything else, about a Scottish woman played by Holly Hunter who is sent to New Zealand to marry an awful man, awful mostly because he imagines himself to be a profoundly good man. She promptly has a torrid affair with the “bad man,” played by Harvey Keitel, who lives nearby. Men who tell you this movie is a “terrible feminist tract” prove that this film is necessary, the end. Also: a tiny Anna Paquin!
Helen Mirren hipsters knew long before The Queen that she was absolutely fabulous. In part, they knew that on the strength of her performance in this film about the gradual deterioration of George III, who eventually would go running naked in the halls of the palace. Which sounds fun, actually, and this film is quite clear that there is a sort of logic in madness. Mirren is the suffering Queen Charlotte.
Another E.M. Forster adaptation, this time with a great deal of time spent in Italy. Helena Bonham Carter stars as Lucy Honeychurch, a young Englishwoman spending time in Florence, accompanied by no less than Maggie Smith herself. Of course, she falls in love with another dashing vacationer. This is one of the only good Merchant-Ivory movies, in my estimation, which usually fall prey to the primness trap inherent in the genre. There’s more lush romanticism in this one.
None of the actors in this 1999 miniseries have the kind of marquee names that will draw you in — at most you might have heard of Francesca Annis, who had an affair with Ralph Fiennes, and then Iain Glen appears, though he’s better known to the likes of you as Ser Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones — but there’s something that really works about this adaptation of a minor Elizabeth Gaskell novel. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the marriage-plot-type story it tells, about the daughter of a country doctor who is in search of a husband, but the whole thing just comes together beautifully. You can brag about having seen this to your period-drama-loving friends.
Agnieszka Holland directs this Henry James adaptation from an old script, written in the ’40s. And Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the lonely, plain Catherine Sloper, will break your heart. Her love affair with the dashing Morris Townsend, ugh. It hits me right in the feels, as the internet says.
Arguably (I said arguably) Cate Blanchett’s breakout role, as the Virgin Queen, in a film with the kind of lush color one assumes is totally ahistorical because there is no way all that expensive fabric was kept that clean in 16th-century England. No way no how. But Shekhar Khapur’s coronation epic has other charms, too: Blanchett, of course, and Joseph Fiennes as the queen’s beloved Dudley.
This 1993 movie, along with A Room With a View, is the other acceptable Merchant Ivory effort. Unfortunately, in the translation to the screen, this film loses something of the unreliable narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s sublime novel. But it gains, in return, the performance of Anthony Hopkins as its all-too-loyal butler, devastated to learn what it is he’s dedicated his life to.
We all remember our parents speaking of this film’s scandals in the 1980s. Watch it now, post-Cruel Intentions, and it seems a little prim, actually, despite John Malkovich’s special efforts to cover every prop and costume with metaphorical slime. Also, god, were we all young once, particularly Keanu, who almost arrives with umbilical cord attached. But the sumptuous boudoirs of this film sell you on it even as the acting seem somehow — too self-serious? Or too earnest. Sexual scandal seems to be the most mutable part of these films.
In this 2008 adaptation of the Dickens novel, set largely in and around a debtor’s prison, Amy Dorrit (Claire Foy) is just trying to keep afloat. Of course, like any poor person in a Dickens book, she falls in love with the nearest available penniless man, who’s hanging around in the form of Matthew Macfadyen. Typical Dickensian hijinks ensure, but the whole is so well-executed you can overlook the clichés and commonplaces.
To be perfectly clear, this is not the 1985 Patrick Swayze Civil War-stravaganza miniseries, but rather a 2004 BBC adaptation of (you guessed it) an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. Unlike most of these films, this one has an intriguing element of social critique. Workers’ rights are a central part of the story. Recommended especially for your Marxist friends who think your love of Downton Abbey is “class fetishism.”
Confession: I find much of this film ponderous and boring, not unlike the way I feel about the novel it’s based on, come to think of it. But in its final act every frame of the film burns itself into your soul. In particular: there’s a scene in which the younger of the two captured white sisters (pictured above), played by Jodhi May, devastated by the loss of her suitor, stands at the edge of the cliff. The look on her face!
You knew this one was coming. You knew it! Don’t even talk to me about the terrible Joe Wright adaptation starring Keira “Leads With Her Chin” Knightley. It is plainly inferior to the 1995 A&E adaptation that gave us Colin Firth. I don’t even think I really need to argue this point. You know I am right.
Terence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic was almost bound to please me because The House of Mirth is one of my very favorite books. But often loving a book means you’ll ultimately hate the film adaptation. Not so, here. Gillian Anderson was basically the platonic ideal of Lily. And even Eric Stoltz’s stiffness as an actor suited Selden. After the end of this film you will cry for days, I promise.
I have saved one of the absolute best for last. The period drama, as you have probably noticed by now, is a largely heteronormative affair. But Sarah Waters, the British novelist, has lately been shaking up that rule in her books by having them feature lesbian protagonists. And in Fingersmith she wrote her most filmable plot, about a girl raised by pickpockets who seeks to scheme an heiress out of her money. What happens next is not what you’d expect. And the 2005 television adaptation of the novel, starring Sally Hawkins as the schemer, is just great. Let it never be said that lesbians can’t wield bustles with the best of them.