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?

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You’ll understand why I put Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution onto my very short list of Rainy Days Films — those films one saves up, like that chocolate bar your friend brought back from Belgium, for a day when you have a need for something exceptionally luscious. This film is a period drama lover’s delight: sensuous with 1940s textures and fabrics and chinas, rippled with sunlight and neons and 1940s incandescents. It is also almost pornographically sexy (it was even cut for many audiences, and released in the US with a NC-17 rating).

What I didn’t expect was that Tang Wei to blow my frontal lobe in the role of Wong Chia Chi, a Hong Kong university student and accidental actress who, with her fellow actors, forms a renegade unit to resist the wartime Japanese occupation of China. She’s fabulous.

In the earliest part of the film (set in 1938), we see most clearly how young and naïve she is — and I mean, like, teenager young. She’s shy and a bit wowed by her older friend’s cohort of student actors, especially the one really good-looking boy. Even when she gets recruited into their patriotic play, we’re not sure whether such a young thing will make it onstage. But something happens in that concluding moment in their play, as Chia Chi’s real emotions intersect with those of her character, and a real tear slips down her cheek. Even her co-star in the scene seems thrown by her talent. It’s as if we see an entirely new person — acting has released in Chia Chi a talent for doubled selfhood and performance that seems preternatural.

Thus, when they cook up a plan to act as a resistance group to combat Japanese presence in China, Chia Chi is their star. She masquerades as a wealthy importer’s wife in order to infiltrate the social circle and mahjong club of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), the wife of collaborationist Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Chia Chi spends her days advising the ladies on finding tailors and decent restaurants, appearing far more cosmopolitan and far older than her true age, and — trickiest of all — chit-chatting expertly with wealthy wives whose radar is acute. She waits for an opportunity to flirt prettily with the elusive Yee, who appears only occasionally in his wife’s parlor.

In every way — her expressions, her physical gestures, her face, it’s like Chia Chi is a different woman. She shows no hesitation in her acting skills — even a certain impetuousness.

Yee, meanwhile, is a cypher. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is always so good — that tragic face, that slightly beaten-down appearance, those eyes that bespeak yearning and self-defeat (see especially his Happy Together [1997] and the luminescent In the Mood for Love [2000]); here his character is particularly hard and inscrutable. Chia Chi often feels like she’s wasting time; she’s certainly wasting all her friends’ money while she loses at mahjong to Yee’s wife. But eventually he notices her, finds small ways to get closer to her.

Her radical friends congratulate her for her accomplishment. Then they remind her that she doesn’t know the first thing about sex; in fact, only one of them does, and that’s because he has a weakness for prostitutes. Thus begins the least sexy deflowering and “sex education” in the history of film, all done in the name of a free China. But the Yees leave Hong Kong before she gets her chance to seduce him. Their assassination plans foiled, Chia Chi and her friends have a particularly bad night before they break apart and don’t see each other again.

Three years later, Chia Chi is staying with an aunt in Shanghai, poor and going through the motions of her studies. Like other Chinese, she’s learning Japanese to adjust to the Occupation. She looks like a shadow of her former self, and we’re not sure why — is it a lingering sense of degradation after losing her virginity for no reason? the long effects of poverty and Japanese occupation? simple loneliness and isolation? We’ve never seen her before with such an expression of defeat, and it’s dark.

Then her old friends rediscover her and recruit her back to the same mission, except this time they’re working with the real Resistance, and they’re organized. They want her to pick up where she left off, and she does — seating herself back at Mrs. Yee’s mahjong table, catching Yee’s eye. But there’s something different this time, something we feel so acutely but can’t put our fingers on. There’s something darker. 1942 is a very different world than 1938, for both of them. They are different people.

How does she do it, with that round face and precious lips? How does she capture the stresses of living this double life so beautifully and seamlessly? Tang Wei is always on point, always watchable, yet is asked to encompass so many conflicting emotions at once that her performance is a small miracle. It’s as if her character is most real when she must pretend to be someone she’s not.

Then add sex and stir. Her emotions become all the more convoluted when Yee finds ways to sleep with her — at first in the most brutal, sadistic manner, akin to how he tortures members of the Resistance; and gradually in ways that express a shared passion that captures all they are still hiding from one another, all they despise about themselves.

This is not romance, although sometimes they pretend it is. This is smut, dirty and fiery and beyond all reason. It’s fantastic, and it destroys their souls. I’m sure someone out there will argue that Chia Chi “falls in love” with Yee, but I will argue most fervently that this is not any kind of recognizable love. This is urgent and awful and demoralizing, and it erases traces of the self you thought you were. It’s fantastic to watch — again, this is really goddamn close to pornography — but grueling to identify with. Chia Chi and Yee can only experience this kind of sex because of the horrible things they’ve done in their other lives, the kinds of people they’ve sunk to being. The sex is so intense because they recognize the dark in each other. 

And still they pretend. Yee invites her to a Japanese tea house where the veneer of Japanese politeness is thin but insistent. As a small protest against its Japaneseness, Chia Chi sings a romantic Chinese song and dances alluringly for Yee in the weird privacy of a room with paper walls. The sense of defeat is everywhere. But they pretend it’s not, and they pretend they feel love for one another. It breaks your heart — not because of a tragic love, but because each of these people is splitting apart in their souls.

Tang Wei. Keep your eyes open for her — I can only hope she gets more roles of such range and depth. I bow down before her skill.