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Top 10 Period Dramas

By Ally Sinyard · February 14, 2012

Occasionally, when I’m not watching my standard blokey films like Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds, I like to swoon my face off to some Jane Austen and a bit of Colin Firth in the lake. I believe it is called “equilibrium.”

When the swooning had ceased and it came to actually sitting down and writing this list, I found “period dramas” hard to define. It turns out that this genre that I knew very little of was not just limited to adaptations of feminist literature, the Yorkshire Moors, petticoats and so on. Period dramas are films that are set in a time period other than contemporary and setting and costume play a greater role than usual.

Moreover, period dramas could literally be from any period. Citizen Kane counts. I, Claudius counts.  Schindler’s List counts. You see my problem?  So, it is important for me to be clear on narrowing a focus for this list, and therefore, I have chosen to look at period dramas that are set from the 18thcentury onwards. The reason for this is because I felt that the films set even earlier were more concerned with playing out particular events from history, hence filling the genre mold as “historical films.”

For me, period dramas set towards the end of the millennium use history as more of a backdrop, and so our characters are more-often-than-not fictional. The authors and screenwriters of the films on this list do not just present history to us; they rework them and create new worlds, new plots and new heroes and heroines. They also include themes that are important to a modern day audience. So, let us begin…

10. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

“This delightful comedy-drama could have been written by Shakespeare himself, and that’s all part of the joke,” writes Anneke Hak for Handbag.com. Endlessly witty and very romantic, Shakespeare in Love is one of few period dramas that does not take itself so seriously! For those of you that are intimidated by the stuffiness of it all, this film is a good place to start for period dramas. You could say it is a higher class of Rom-Com, and having such a wide appeal is what contributed to its enormous success. In other words, director John Madden “does for adults what Baz Luhrmann did for teens in Romeo and Juliet” (Lael Loewenstein – Variety.) On the technical front, I cannot fault this film. The make-up, the costuming and Richard Greatrex’s contemporary cinematography bring the best out of the Elizabethan backdrop. Shakespeare fans may turn their noses up at it, but I implore you to give it a chance! Its sense of humour is contagious!

9. North and South (2004)

This BBC Television Mini-Series about a young Southern woman whose family must move to the North is the highest-rated period drama by users on PeriodDramas.com. It proved to be much more popular with audiences than critics, who barely took notice, and even the BBC thought it would flop. Thus it was given very little publicity, which explains why many of us haven’t heard of it! Voted “Best Drama” on the BBC drama website’s annual poll in 2004, it is authentic, atmospheric and, as is so important to the making on a good period drama, it deals with issues that are relevant today! The conflict between North and South brings to light issues in class, gender and employment. There are also plenty of meaty themes to get your teeth into. It is no coincidence that director Brian Percival has since won a BAFTA and a Primetime Emmy award for his work on the now-famous BBC Costume Drama Downton Abbey. If you’re a fan of that, you will certainly love this. A firm favourite among BBC viewers!

8. Amadeus (1984)

Amadeus is an anomaly on this list, because it isn’t just the setting that is real. We are following real characters. Originally, my intention was to write a list of period dramas where the criteria required all stories to be fictional, but in the case of Amadeus, I am willing to make an exception. My reason for this is quite simple: although this film is about Mozart, it doesn’t appear to be overly concerned with being 100% historically accurate. You can gather that from Tom Hulce’s performance alone! His costume is exaggerated to match his “childlike demeanour and playful rebellion,” and to contrast with Salieri’s (F. Murray Abraham) “sinister masked costume” (Alison Nastasi – Flavorwire.) This is where Amadeus differs from biographical films and becomes more of a period drama, or at least more like one.  It has a place on this list because, like the other films, it is a triumph in both story and design. On a production level, “as an evocation of time and place, Amadeus is loaded with pleasure” (Todd McCarthy – Variety.)

7. The Age of Innocence (1993)

Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence is an excellent study in semiotics in 19thCentury high society, where what one doesn’t say is just as important as what one does. Secret glances and suggestive body language play a larger role than characters explicitly expressing their feelings for one another. Scorsese’s roaming camera is the perfect way to capture this. The story is quite typical: a young, bland lawyer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is engaged to marry a young, bland socialite (Winona Ryder.) As soon as someone vaguely interesting and unrepressed enters the world of 1870s New York, by the name of Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), our lawyer finds himself falling in love with her. Cue gossiping old aristocrats and footsie under the table. The Age of Innocence was something very different for Scorsese, but it proved to be remarkably refreshing. The camera moves so unobtrusively and gracefully, savouring the exquisite costume and set design. Naturally, the film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Art Direction. As for the performances, Peter Travers from “Rolling Stone” wrote of Day-Lewis, “Not since Olivier in Wuthering Heights has an actor matched piercing intelligence with such imposing good looks and physical grace.”

6. The Piano (1993)

The Piano stands out on this list for being poetic, mystical, raw, sexual; basically, not your average period drama! Also, the two greatest performances are by an 11-year-old Anna Paquin and the mute and mind-blowing Holly Hunter. It is an exceptional work of art that goes above and beyond a simple narrative of life in a specific era. “It is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling” (Roger Ebert.) The treatment of time and place is also unique here: “The story worms further into the guts of Victorian experience than most historical dramas, because it aims at the most neglected aspect of that age, and the most alarmingly modern: its surrealism” (Anthony Lane – The New Yorker.) It is a film that chooses to rely on image rather than language; unusual for a period drama, where the use of language holds great importance. For me, the most touching moments are whenever Ada (Hunter) is at her piano. Watching her play and watching the way that other characters respond to her playing is more powerful than any words said in the entire film. It is a testament to Hunter’s skill and Jane Campion’s vision and direction. The most unique and transcendent period drama yet.

5. Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is a breath of fresh air. It’s funny! No really…it is! It might sound unlikely and a bit risky, a period-drama-comedy, but it works!  Normally, we as an audience feel a little distanced from and unsympathetic to these rigid, 19thCentury, high society figures, who bemoan how terribly awful it is to wear a corset and so on. The comedy actually serves in bringing out more human qualities. We identify with the Dashwood ladies and are even able to find a rare bit of comic relief in moments of tragedy and turmoil. It is so intelligent and “full of good spirit” that even the most villainous of characters are “given the chance to seem human and pained by their own weaknesses” (Barbara Shulgasser – San Francisco Examiner.) Sense and Sensibility thus proved to be incredibly successful with both critics and filmgoers, for not taking itself too seriously; and Emma Thompson proved herself to be a fantastic screenwriter, as well as actress. “This film is a winner in all respects” (Sue Parrill – “Jane Austen on Film and Television.)

4. Atonement (2007)

After the insanity of “Austen-mania” in the 90s, you would think that Period Drama had had its moment; then along came Atonement to remind us of that glorious feeling of being swept away to the English countryside. Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are recognised as two of the best young British actors around, and director Joe Wright is able to match their performances with some stunning “storytelling and technical flair” (Empire.) Most importantly, it is the cinematography that stands out. The 5-and-a-half-minute long tracking shot depicting thousands of Allied soldiers during the evacuation of Dunkirk is one of the highlights of Atonement.  It is absolutely dazzling and brings to the forefront the waste of war. The fading close up of Robbie Turner (McAvoy) during World War Two in Northern France is another stunning moment. The novel that Atonement was adapted from is one of the most celebrated of its time, as well as being on the short list for the 2001 Booker Prize. The adaptation was everything that readers had hoped for and was regarded as one of the best on 2007. To also feature such emotive cinematography is what bumps Atonement up the list as one of the more superior period dramas.

3. Gone With the Wind (1939)

Not the first film that springs to mind when you think “period drama,” I’ll admit. However, when you think about it, it would be a travesty to not include it! When looking for a film that went beyond the call of duty to both represent a particular era and take its audience on a real journey, Gone with the Wind is without a doubt one of the finest! In fact, the sheer grandeur of it could very well be a reason that it is often overlooked on lists such as this. If the category had existed back in 1939, Gone With the Wind would have won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, on top of the other TEN that it won on that historic night. Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) dresses are some of the most memorable in Hollywood history. The incredibly expressionistic production design is also one of the more overlooked aspects of this film, and we all know how much period dramas adore Expressionism! A victor in both form and content, there can be little wonder why Gone with the Wind is estimated to be the highest-grossing film of all time in both the USA and UK, when adjusted for inflation. A timeless classic.

2. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Dangerous Liaisons is an outstanding film because it took risks, and not just with the risqué material. Stephen Frears’ casting of John Malkovich, for example, was not without controversy. While there was “shock of seeing him in powdered wigs, [he was] unexpectedly fine” (New York Times.) In fact, critics went as far as to say the inclusion of Malkovich brought a “fascinating dimension” to the character of Vicomte de Valmont that would be “missing” with a more “conventionally handsome leading man” (The Washington Post.) Such production decisions as these, along with the outrageous story, are what make this such an outstanding period drama. Of course, one cannot write about Dangerous Liaisons without mentioning Glenn Close’s now-famous performance as the Marquise de Merteuil. This woman was born to play femme fatales, and in Dangerous Liaisons she is both deliciously dangerous and comic! Any other actress would have lacked the presence and power that was required to be able to convincingly rival Vicomte. The sexiest period drama ever!

1. Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Andrew Davies’ 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is now something of a legend. Louise Watson for BFI Screen Online called it a “cultural phenomenon, inspiring hundreds of newspaper articles and making the novel a commuter favourite.” The 19thCentury was back in fashion and “Austen-mania,” as The Wall Street Journal called it, took over. There are more than a few reasons why Pride and Prejudice is the top of this list, but the most important are the pacing, the energy and the casting. Structured into a BBC Television Mini-Series instead of being packed into 90-or-so minutes, Davies and director Simon Langton made sure that audiences were always desperate for the next episode. It is clear for all to see the attention to detail and amount of care that went into the structuring, with each episode feeling like a whole rather than a fragment. I, personally, couldn’t help but watch the whole series in one day. It’s the wrong medium, but I just couldn’t put it down! It also has a sense of fun and energy that one would be stretched to find in the world of lace and bonnets. To top it all off, there is the wonderful chemistry between Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, who is “universally acknowledged as the definitive Mr Darcy” (Gene Seymour – Newsday.) The scene of him coming out of the lake in a drenched shirt is now considered to be one of the most famous in British television history.