Yes, we recognise that there is so much more to period dramas than quaint English trappings like horse-riding, bonnets and afternoon tea. Indeed, if our only criteria are “historical” and “drama”, that opens up an almost bewildering array of choices. It would be obtuse to avoid the obvious classics, yet narrow-minded to not look beyond them. What to do? Well, here is a selection of some of the finest to ever grace our screens, with hopefully some fan favourites alongside some more unexpected left-field offerings and all in honour of this week’s 25th anniversary Blu-Ray re-release of 1992’s Howard’s End.
Some estimable commentator said of Barry Lyndon that one of Kubrick’s phenomenal achievements with this film was to take the period drama back into the past. His typically meticulous approach found form on this occasion in a decision to dispense with “artificial” lighting of his internal scenes and instead use what would have been available to the interiors at the time, namely a shed-load of candles and fireplaces. It is just one of a number of lush details to be relished in this imperious period piece, gorgeous to look at but arguably lacking in emotional engagement.
It is possible to dismiss it as all style and no substance, to see it as yet another typically Kubrickian exercise in visual mastery, but once again failing (or refusing) to connect with audiences on an emotional level. Brilliant but boring might be the line taken by some, yet it remains essential viewing.
In contrast to Barry Lyndon, Gosford Park is arguably a more successful alloying of astutely staged period details with a compelling and engaging narrative. Robert Altman is a widely accepted master of the art form and although (as with all directors) he has his detractors, here we see his standard staples (long takes, overlapping dialogue, acutely observed character details) connected with not just a gripping whodunnit, but also a worthwhile scrutinising of British class structures and the weight of the legacy of personal failings and choices. That it remains breezy despite addressing important and weighty themes is testimony to both Altman’s typically assured touch and also Julian Fellowes’ first run at what he would refine and develop with Downton Abbey some years later.
In summary: intelligently and compellingly written, flawlessly performed by a breath-takingly accomplished cast (Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Charles Dance, Tom Hollander, Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Richard E. Grant, Clive Owen, Kelly MacDonald) and directed with verve and classicism. Close to the high water mark for both Altman and this varied genre.
The Remains of the Day
Don’t @ me, but this Remains Anthony Hopkins’ finest screen performance, Dr Lecter notwithstanding. So much more subtle, nuanced and affecting, however iconoclastic chianti and fava beans might have become in the meantime.
Hopkins’ James Stevens is superficially the very definition of a stiff upper-lipped servant, knowing his place and performing his duties flawlessly. But he is also flesh and blood and it is in the subtlest of details (a close encounter with Emma Thompson’s Miss Kenton, a near brush on a bus at the end of the film) that we see the beginnings of his emotions desperately trying to get to the surface.
Although Hopkins’ performance is what resonates most, this remains an across-the-board masterpiece in every facet. Merchant Ivory of course have made this sort of film their stock in trade, which is not intended to be damning with faint praise. On the contrary, their commitment to strong production values, strong stories, excellent characterisation and performances that eschew trite, feeble “oh golly” Britishness has been evidenced across many, many years of films such as A Room With A View, Howard’s End and Remains of the Day, right up to this year’s highly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name. The Remains of the Day is heart-achingly romantic, eye-catchingly detailed and beautifully performed.
Gone With The Wind
More melodrama than drama, GWTW doesn’t exactly defy categorisation, but it stands as so monumental a film that it often feels reductive to classify it too strictly. Of course it remains the all-time (inflation adjusted) box office champion and has entered the collective cultural consciousness in a host of ways, but it is also a film as problematic as the far more obviously racist Birth of a Nation. What is undeniable is its beauty, its power and its historical sweep, with the seemingly impossible task of covering so much ground even in a bloated 4-hour running time easily accomplished and Vivien Leigh’s career-best performance as Scarlet O’Hara managing to stand out in a very crowded, erm, crowd.
It is set in a historical period and it is a drama, so it has the credentials to qualify for this list, but beyond that it presents a feisty protagonist, dogged and (eventually) resourceful rather than coddled. Scarlet is of course a profoundly rich character, by turns as irritating as she is compelling. The lush cinematography belies the age of the film and the relative novelty of technicolor, with Ernest Haller’s cinematography often overlooked amidst the merry-go-round that was the director’s chair.
Although some felt cheated by the rug-pull twist at the end of Atonement, a quick “finger in the air” poll shows that for the most part it worked and audiences and critics came away satisfied. In the end the denouement was not one which completely recast the whole film, nor was it some sort of “it was all a dream” scam, rather it showed the story to be one of a guilt-ridden woman’s efforts to atone for her errors and childhood petulance, giving her protagonists the happy ending she felt they deserved but which her naivety and arrogance had denied them.
Aside from all of that, Atonement is a sumptuous film, virtuosic at times (especially in its beach-set tracking shot) and after a fairly hermetically sealed opening act, opens out into the harsh realities of the real world, to devastating effect. Director Joe Wright beautifully captures the quiet beauty of the stereotypical English country pile, but just as compellingly delivers on the bleakness and brutality of James McAvoy’s wartime experiences. It is another period drama that is deceptively lush to look at, but wholly delivers on the stronger imagery too.
Portraying a period of time in the life of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, Finding Neverland shows us his burgeoning friendship with the Llewelyn-Davies family (widow Sylvia and her four sons) and how one of those sons helped inspire Barrie’s most celebrated creation. Long before Johnny Depp lost his way in caricatured pirates and affectatious Burton roles, he delivers here with a role of sensitivity and subtlety that feels like a lifetime ago. In particular, one disarmingly simple but powerful conversation between J.M. Barrie and a friend introduces the idea that perhaps people are beginning to whisper about the possibility of Barrie’s friendship with these boys becoming inappropriate. The reaction on Depp’s face is a masterclass of simplicity but effectiveness, showing revulsion at the idea and also how profoundly innocent and sincere his relationship with the boys really is – that he means them nothing but good and would clearly never in a million years be anything other than a friend to them.
More than anything else it is a film rich in its dialogue, but it lovingly recreates its place and time as well and its warmth is what will inevitably keep pulling you back in. Barrie’s friendship with the boys brings them back into the real world after the devastating loss of their father, whilst simultaneously launching them into the imagination-inspiring world of Neverland. There is so much fun to be had here, but the film never shrinks back from the harsh realities of (true) life either.
Sense & Sensibility
It really is little more than a coin toss between Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility and the equally impressive and enduring 1940 iteration of Pride & Prejudice. Both are handsomely mounted and performed, but in the end it goes to Sense & Sensibility, by little more than the thickness of a cigarette paper.
For his first English-language film, Ang Lee picked a none-more-English story and has since showed himself matchless as a director, regardless of the genre. Wushu, Western, 1970’s US drama, Civil War drama, Comic Book, whatever Life of Pi is – he handles it all with seemingly effortless ease. Emma Thompson gets a lot of credit here too – acting and writing with equal adroitness – and Kate Winslet burst on to the scene by adding really weight and depth to what can sometimes feel like a role lacking gravitas. As with all of the films on this list, production design, costumes and sets are all spot-on (we would expect nothing less) but that would all be for nothing if the film were not then crafted correctly.
Ultimately, the triumph of this film feels like the way in which you can immerse yourself in it. As far back as it is set, you are able to nestle in it and savour both the period details but also a timeless story that engages and endears. It is a supremely satisfying film, garnering awards and praise and enduring in audience’s affections.
Much Ado About Nothing
Although contemporary when first written and performed, needless to say this had very much become a period drama by the time Kenneth Branagh was able to corral his friends to stage one of the very finest big screen Shakespeare adaptations. It helps that the source material is as strong as it is, one of the Great Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable plays, but it’s all for nought if your cast can’t wrap their gums around all those iambic pentameters.
Of course Branagh and his then wife Emma Thompson take to it all like ducks to water, bickering and bantering with sparkle, wit and spontaneity, but the rest of the cast fare wonderfully too. After dabbling with Shakespeare in a side storyline in Dead Poets’ Society, Robert Sean Leonard manages his role here with guilelessness and strength, Kate Beckinsale delivers sweetness and innocence without being a wet blanket and although Keanu Reeves struggles to shake off Ted Logan’s accent, he makes for a great villain and attacks his role with relish. We of course expect Richard Briers, Brian Blessed and Denzel Washington to deliver, what we might not have expected in the bizarre but strangely fitting double act of Ben Elton and Michael Keaton – weird but somehow not tipping over into farce.
The film is of course a celebration of love and delivers a much-needed unequivocally happy ending. Sometimes you need a film to not force you to work hard at it. Sometimes you just need to be able to sit back and enjoy.
There Will Be Blood
As with Gone With The Wind, There Will Be Blood feels too sweeping and epic in its scope and themes to sit comfortably within the “genre” of period dramas, but essentially this where it belongs, even if then requires rigorous analysis to then set out the ways in which it transcends such pigeon-holing. Covering the relationship between a rapacious oil prospector and a conflicted/compromised minister from the turn of the 20th century up to later in their lives, There Will Be Blood is arguably about everything – greed, ambition, the human soul, hatred, manipulation and alienation.
Not many films ostensibly about the beginnings of oil prospecting could finish with one character sitting next to a bowling alley, bellowing “I drink your milkshake!” and make it work, but this is such a film – thematically rich, deliberate and unhurried, powerful and enduring. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is of course an auteur and a master, working at a consistently higher level than pretty much any director out there. Every film he makes further reinforces his reputation as a master of the medium and his control over what he directs (not the bullying, shouting kind, but his ability to draw the disparate elements of a film into a cohesive, compelling whole) is second to none.
With There Will Be Blood, so rich and profound is the story-telling that in fact the period details are not necessarily so easily identified – substance over style, if anything – but they are there in the design, the backgrounds, the compelling cinematography and (much like this year’s Blade Runner 2049) we are left with something matchlessly beautiful in every frame but still fully engaging of our hearts and our intellect. This is already thoroughly established as a modern classic and its standing will only grow as time passes.
Although some found the anachronism of a film set in the 1890s populated by modern pop songs too jarring, the truth is (as various critics rightly pointed out at the time of the film’s release) that Hollywood has for a long time used songs from different eras in its films. Meet Me In St Louis used showtunes from when it was released rather than when it was set and in fact Moulin Rouge doesn’t feel like a director showing off, but in fact one identifying songs whose themes match the onscreen action, even if the end product might be a little hyperactive for some.
This is a marmite entry in this list and indeed a good friend of mine said at the time he first saw it that he couldn’t work out whether he loved it or hated it. It is, to put it mildly, theatrical in the extreme and deliberately so. Baz Luhrmann wanted to stage an extravaganza as the concluding part of his red curtain trilogy and that is certainly what we got, but it’s not mere showmanship – the story at the centre of this film, of love and loss, is affectingly captured and performed. Ewan McGregor is a convincingly broken man by the film’s end – undone by having his heart captured then shattered.
Broad double entendres, risque can-can dancers, pantomimic villains, consumption, John Leguizamo acting on his knees, Jim Broadbent belting out “Like a Virgin”; it really shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s not to everyone’s liking but for those who will enter into it, it is compelling, heart-achingly romantic, exciting and ultimately triumphant.