Listmania: The very best of period drama. (It’s not just for girls.)

29 January 2012

You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

43 Responses to “Listmania: The very best of period drama. (It’s not just for girls.)”

  1. Cold Comfort Farm is one my all time favorite movies!! I’m so glad you also included My Brilliant Career.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Excellent List – but there are few omissions:

    Jean de Florette
    Manon of the Spring

    Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia. Bridge Over the River Kwai, Exodus

    True Confessions

    In the Name of the Father

    Name of the Rose


  3. JustMeMike Says:

    And a few about India:
    A Passage to India
    from TV – The Jewel in the Crown


    • Didion Says:

      I have to admit, it’s been way too long since I’ve seen these that you mention — I feel a marathon coming on. You’re too right about Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs; completely forgot about them, and it’s been too long for me to remember how I felt about them. And I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never seen some of them — In the Name of the Father, True Confessions, Bridge Over the River Kwai (I know, I know…), Name of the Rose. Damn, JMM, you’re amazing at this game!

  4. Bellatrix Says:

    Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea have a spot on my list. An imaginative, booksmart red-headed orphan is adopted by a spinster and her brother on Victorian Prince Edwards Island. Strong female characters (for real!!), moral ambiguity, and romantically tragic scenarios, recitations of high victorian poetry, deep friendships among women, but no people of color.

    • Didion Says:

      How many times did I re-read those books as a kid? Yet somehow I’ve never seen the series. GOT to start working on my list of to-see movies. Thanks, Bellatrix!

      • Bellatrix Says:

        oh yeah. Just wait till you see Anne clinging to the bridge, her nose in the air as she turns gilbert’s offer for a ride down (at first), and see her call Rachel a “sour old gossip”. Its stunning!

  5. servetus Says:

    Love the implicit point that Little Dorrit morphological recreates the feeling of Victorian serial fiction.

  6. servetus Says:


    • Didion Says:

      Yes! If only I’d also watched it on a weekly basis, as it was intended, rather than in a weekend-long binge of television pleasure.

      I never read anything serially. Except blogs, of course, but that’s nothing like the Dickens tales doled out on a weekly basis. I’m coming a little bit closer with Downton Abbey, which I’m watching weekly now for the first time (thanks, local friends!) … but don’t hate me if I say it’s just not as good as Dickens.

      • servetus Says:

        I’ve only had the experience recently myself, with fanfics — waiting for their updates. And yes, I do wait on the edge of my chair, and feel personally involved when the narratives don’t work out in the way I wish they would 🙂

  7. […] offers us a list of her favorite period drama. Of course, North & South is there, along with some other familiar material, but also quite a […]

  8. @Rob Says:

    This is a great list. I remember really liking Protrait of a Lady. I did like the more recent adaptation of P&P. Joe Wright did a lovely job on it. It was visually stunning. I’ll have to give Little Dorrit another try. I am going to have to copy this list for my next sick day.

    Oh dear! Downtown Abbey is just wonderful.

    I just saw The Artist and LOVED it!

  9. Dorothea Says:

    Interesting list and it brought back memories of a lot of fine shows.

    Re. The Piano…a small correction: it was Sam Neill who played the part of the husband, while Harvey Keitel was the paramour.

    • Didion Says:

      Whoops! I really need to see this again — it’s on my Netflix queue, so at least it’s moving its way up, slowly….

  10. Lee Says:

    I really liked your choices . . . except for one. I’m sorry, but I found the 2011 version of “JANE EYRE” to be disappointing.

    • Didion Says:

      Really?! Aside from the fact that the director had to cram everything into a two-hour film, I just loved it. But perhaps you liked the BBC miniseries with Toby Stephens better?

  11. Elaine Says:

    Deadwood did horrifically badly on the women’s attire. I can’t even begin to give specifics because there are too many incorrect choices.
    …and the modern words used to cuss were distracting. Period cussing is quite bad enough if one takes an honest look (try the military court martial records for some period cussing that’s as blue as the uniforms)… but at least it would have been appropriate to the situation.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, interesting! I saw an interview with David Milch in which he successfully explained that choice; I read the surplus of cursing less as an attempt to be absolutely historically accurate as to get across the way it was the one lingua franca that everyone could use to express a kind of democratic language.

      I complained a lot about the show at the time, in that as much as I love the women who played Calamity and Trixie and Joanie, it was such a show about dudes. Not that this is a surprise to HBO fans. And not that this was historically inaccurate to SD in the 19th century. But damn, such a good show, and so few opportunities for female actors … again.

  12. EnjieBenjie Says:

    great list, i will like to add a personal favorite, the far pavilions, set in Colonial India.

    • Didion Says:

      !! How do I not know about this? It’s streaming on Netflix, too — must spend time watching TODAY.

  13. FD Says:

    I suggest adding Parade’s End (HBO) to this list. NOTE: If you’re an HBO subscriber, the five episode show is available on demand until March 25th.

  14. Sam Loy Says:

    Heya. Being the lover of film and equality fighter that you are, I thought you might be interested in this, in case you haven’t already seen it.

    • Didion Says:

      These people at the Geena Davis Center are doing an amazing job of pointing out the true horrors of the stats. Between them and similar researchers at San Diego State and USC, we’ve learned a lot about how little the numbers move. Every year they stun us and shame the industry. I’ve covered these reports before — might have to start doing it again on a more regular basis.

  15. Orlando Says:

    Is it possible that you have yet to see “Impromptu”? Judy Davis as George Sands and a really, really young Hugh Grant as Chopin. Add Julian Sands as Liszt and other supports from Emma Thompson, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. Gorgeous, grand C19th flummery.

    • Didion Says:

      Orlando, I love Impromptu! but haven’t see it for years. Maybe I need to find a copy to see again. Oh my, the pleasure of costume drama.

  16. Claire Says:

    ‘I’ve never seen … Maurice’: you should rectify that. For many of us, it’s THE best of the Merchant-Ivory Forster adaptations, no contest. (But a rather different animal from the TV ‘Edwardian soap’ serials, such as Upstairs/Downstairs or The Duchess of Duke Street, you’ve listed alongside it.)

    Maurice is stylistically and tonally different from (its Merchant Ivory precursor) A Room With A View, but the better for it. Superb visual composition, combining an appropriately darker, more masculine look (from a different cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme) with what the Washington Post nailed as ‘subtle, sensitive … woozy, unadulterated romance, an intoxicating tuxedo-ripper.’ (‘Tuxedo’ because, of course, the romance is boy-meets-boy-loses-boy-meets-boy.) The haunting orchestral score – from the late, great Richard Robbins – is just superb, as are the performances from the three (then-)unknown young male leads. The icing on the cake: back in 1987, ‘unknown’ meant James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves, no less; and none of them has ever been more beautiful than they are in Maurice. Warning: If this film affects you, it will hook you for life.

    • Didion Says:

      Too right — I’ve got to see it. I’ve got to get on a plane later today; maybe I’ll see if I can download a copy for plane viewing.

  17. Jordan Ford Says:

    I see many of my favorites on your list! I have a suggestion for another great miniseries: The Pillars of the Earth from Ken Follett’s book of the same name. I LOVED it. Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, and Eddie Redmayne are great!

  18. Canary Says:

    Portrait of a Lady should be here, its the epitomy of a lavish coustume drama.

    • Didion Says:

      Oooh! I haven’t seen this one. Is it the 1996 Nicole Kidman film you’re referring to, or is there a miniseries I don’t know about?

  19. noobie Says:

    its 2-3part period drama miniseries,young woman nurse falls in love with a young rich doctor,she gets pregnant but doesent tell him,he goes on a trip or something,her father wants her to marry a man butcher neighbour i think,she refuses,then the doctor comes back and she tells him about baby,its a boy,and they marry,ots set somewhere around 1920-1940 i think,its filmed 2000-2010 dont know the date but somewhere around that,please help,going crazy cant find it anywhere,and i loved it so much,thank you.

  20. John Says:

    I would like to suggest, ‘Testament of Youth’, another BBC series, set in the First World War, definitely one to add to your list.

    • Didion Says:

      How did I miss it? I saw it as a teenager and fell in love with the whole thing — for a long time I even had memorized the poem by Brittain’s lover who died in the war.

      All of these comments remind me that the time is rapidly approaching that I need to do an addendum to this list of all the great period dramas I’ve seen since.

  21. Vickey Says:

    First off I want to say great blog! I had a quick question
    that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find
    out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.
    I’ve had a hard time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to
    15 minutes tend to be lost simply just trying to figure
    out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Kudos!

  22. andrewfez Says:

    I haven’t clicked your link on North and Southyet, but does it showcase any agricultural technology from the period?

    The 1850’s were right when commercial fertilizer was coming online. England started importing bat guano from I think South America and was combining it with sulfuric acid to create super-phosphate as fertilizer.

    I’ve actually read Sir Humphry Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry from 1815 and Sir John Sinclair’s Agricultural State from the same period, before there was commercial fertilizer. Davy’s was a brilliant chemist, who discovered a lot of the elements on the periodic table via solution electrolysis, but he never put it together that Nitrogen, Phosphate, and Potassium were the 3 big fertilizers that crops needed to flourish.

    I also wrote a fictional book that partly features ag-tech from the 1820’s, and it also has some Jane Austen archetypal characters as well, called Of Woodbridge and Hedgely, under my pen name, Thomas Smyth. I’m kind of an armchair science historian for the early 19th century. My book was an attempt to get a feel for agrarian life right before fertilizer took off.

  23. ctrent29 Says:

    Of course Lucas was capable of writing dialogue found in “American Graffiti”. The dialogue in the Star Wars movies is stylized for a reason.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: