Mia Goth (left) as "Harriet Smith" and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) as "Emma Woodhouse" in director Autumn de Wilde's EMMA
Photograph: Focus Features

The best period dramas of all time to escape to another era

Opulent costume dramas to keep you going until ‘Bridgerton’

Matthew Singer
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Movies are, at their heart, a transportive medium, and there is no genre that can whisk viewers off to another time and place than a great period piece. You know the clichés: big dresses, bigger wigs, myriad political entanglements and social strictures waiting to be defied by the greatest love affairs in history. Sure, pre-20th century European aristocracy was not exactly a splendid time for everyone, and the best dramas set in those eras make that point plain. But as the modern world gets more complicated and increasingly stressful, it’s no wonder that the world of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton have served as means of retreat for generations, with Netflix’s mega-hits Bridgerton and its spinoff, Queen Charlotte, as the most recent examples of the enduring popularity of franchises set in 1800s high society.

Unfortunately, the third season of Bridgerton is months away – perhaps even longer, depending on the ongoing writers and actors strikes. But don’t you worry: there is quite literally a century’s worth of romantic costume drama available to consume. Here are 25 of the most lavish to tide you over.

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Best period dramas

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For all its pronounced weirdness, freak visionary Yorgos Lanthimos’s jet-black comedy of ill manners is nonetheless based in some level of truth: in the early 18th century, a lesbian love affair did purportedly occur between a gout-stricken Queen Anne (portrayed by Olivia Colman) and two combative cousins (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz). But Lanthimos douses it all in his singularly odd aesthetic, lending the whole contentious affair a fever-dream quality. It’s the strangest entry on this list, and also the ickiest, making it perhaps the most accurate to the time period.

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It’s one of the more controversial Best Picture winners in Oscar history, which is a shame: if John Madden’s Elizabethan romcom hadn’t edged out Saving Private Ryan – possibly due to a bullying nomination campaign led by the Producer Who Shall Not Be Named – it’d be better remembered as the charming, lighthearted little gem that it is. Decades removed, some of that lustre has returned. Pre-Goop Gwyneth Paltrow is herself a charming little gem as Viola de Lesseps, the (totally made-up) muse that shook William Shakespeare out of a years-long rut and inspired the protagonist in Twelfth Night.

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Cate Blanchett made her grand debut as one of the best actors of her generation playing Queen Elizabeth I as she first takes over the throne from her late sister, inheriting a raft of problems, not the least of which being the scheming men in her vicinity who’d prefer to see someone else in charge, if you catch our drift. Director Shekhar Kapur comes at Elizabeth’s rise almost like a mob epic, and Blanchett brings an appropriately Brando-esque gravity to the role. That she lost Best Actress to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love is one of the Oscars’ historical screw-ups.

4. The Lion in Winter (1968)

A tale of family dysfunction that’d make the Roys cringe, this aristo-classic has a cast for which the phrase ‘murderers row’ might as well have been invented. Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn portray King Henry II and his estranged wife, Queen Eleanor, as they gather for Christmas in the year 1183. Naturally, it’s far from a merry night of nog and presents, and everyone has an ulterior motive: Henry is desperately clinging to power, while Eleanor looks to unite his sons – including John Castle, Nigel Terry and a young Anthony Hopkins, in the role that launched his screen career – against him. All of them volley around screenwriter James Goldman’s biting dialogue like a spiked shuttlecock, making this even more like historical Succession

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With ornate, downright scrumptious set and costume design, a hip soundtrack and generally modern sensibility, Sofia Coppola effectively brought Marie Antoinette into the 21st century – to both the thrill and chagrin of many critics. Some rolled their eyes (and, in the case of its Cannes screening, audibly booed) at the notion of turning the life of one of history’s most complex figures into a glorified music video. But it’s hard to complain about placing style over substance when a movie is this stylish – Coppola creates a dazzling world anyone would want to live in, even if Kirsten Dunst’s vacuous portrayal of the doomed queen isn’t someone you’d necessarily want to live with.

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Director Terence Davies specialises in depicting high emotional turmoil with painterly grace, and his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic 1905 novel proves to be an ideal pairing. In turn of the 20th century New York, a desperate woman (Gillian Anderson) infiltrates high society in search of a wealthy husband to pull her out of poverty, only for it to destroy her completely. Sure, it’s a bit weird to see Dan Aykroyd in something like this, playing a sketchy businessman, but Anderson is a revelation, casting off X-Files pigeonholing to express deep, existential pains with subtle devastation.   

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Lady Macbeth (2017)
Lady Macbeth (2017)

No, not that Macbeth, although there are some clear parallels. Based on the 1895 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, William Oldroyd’s adaptation tells a rather familiar tale for the genre: a young woman (Florence Pugh) is trapped in a loveless (and sexless) marriage to a man many years her senior, until she makes plans to dispatch him and run off with one of their servants (Cosmo Jarvis). But Lady Macbeth exudes an intensity uncommon in other period dramas with that same idea, owing much to Pugh’s simmering performance, which proved to be her big breakthrough.

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Barry Lyndon (1975)
Barry Lyndon (1975)

Coming off 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, a long, slow-moving 19th century costume drama is the last thing anyone expected of Stanley Kubrick – or wanted, to be honest. But despite the initial misgivings from both critics and audiences, this adaptation of the William Makepeace Thackeray novel has earned placement in a tier just below the legendary director’s greatest masterworks. Certainly, it looks as good as any of those others, its immaculately designed period details illuminated almost entirely by natural light – every scene truly resembles a moving painting. And Ryan O’Neal is perfectly cast in the title role as a emotionally distant vagabond weaselling his way into an aristocratic family. Allay yourself of expectation, and it’s sure to suck you in its rhythms as much as anything else Kubrick has done.

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Ang Lee brought a sharp eye for detail in bringing to life the beloved 1811 Jane Austen novel, but it’s the funny, touching screenplay from Emma Thompson that truly makes this adaptation sing. Thompson also stars as Elinor Dashwood, the oldest of three sisters whose lives are thrown into disarray after the sudden death of their father. Left a paltry inheritance, the siblings are forced to look for financial security through marriage – but their most eligible suitors leave something to be desired. Thompson won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and rightly so – few have ever nailed Austen’s humour and insight on 19th century social mores so deftly.

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Robert Downey Jr was in the early stages of, um, restoring his own career when he was cast to play a 17th century medical student with self-destructive tendencies – something Downey himself, of course, knows something about. He eventually falls in with King Charles II (Sam Neill), then falls out with him, then falls in love with an Irish psychiatric patient (Meg Ryan). Then the Black Plague happens. And the Great Fire of London. And then, through all that, he finally finds redemption. Obviously, that’s a lot for a 117-minute movie, and indeed, director Michael Hoffman strains to cram it all in. But as you can tell, it’s also got a lot of big names in the cast – did we mention Ian McKellen? Or Hugh Grant as an eccentric painter? – and the performances are uniformly excellent, as is the stunning Oscar-winning art direction.  

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Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Fifty years after the definitive Julie Christie-led version, Thomas Vinterberg offered up cinema’s fourth take on the much-loved 1874 Thomas Hardy tale. If it doesn’t quite snatch the crown, it brings Hardy’s classic story of love and fate into the 21st story in a highly effective manner. Carey Mulligan is brilliant as Bathsheba Everdene, a truly independent woman living in rural England in the mid-1800s, who is pursued by three very different suitors. Vinterberg brings a sense of minimalism to Hardy’s sweeping romance, yet the film pops off the screen with vibrant colours you can almost touch.

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Anya Taylor-Joy is, well, an absolute joy as the titular meddlesome matchmaker in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of manners. It’s far from the first film to take on the Austen classic – to say the least – and is perhaps among the least faithful to the source material, but it has a claim to being the best, thanks to Taylor-Joy’s performance and the visual panache of first-time director (and photographer by trade) Autumn de Wilde. 

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Playing an elderly monarch’s declining mental state for laughs might not go over well with today’s audiences, but director Nicholas Hynter’s adaptation of the hit London stage play is as sensitive as it is silly. Yes, the focus is on the antics of Nigel Hawthorne as the ailing George III as he blunders through his reign while gradually succumbing to age (and possibly liver disease), and Hawthorne is hilariously great in the role he also played onstage. But it’s the quieter moments, depicting the tender relationship between the king and his wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), that give the film a poignancy beyond the absurdity.

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In this sardonically witty French production, a rural 18th century landowner (Charles Berling) attempts to improve his social status – and convince King Louis XVI to drain a fetid marsh taking up space in his village – by travelling to Versailles and skillfully insulting everyone around him, as was apparently the custom at the time. Directed by Patrice Leconte, Ridicule is a delightfully tart entry to the costume canon that’s been somewhat forgotten, but it plays like an Armando Iannucci joint – a less scathing, but still pointed, satire of the peculiarities of power. 

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Belle (2013)
Belle (2013)

This pristine drama attempts to piece together the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a British admiral and a Black woman from the West Indies who became the subject of historical fascination following the commission of a painting depicting her alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Obviously, race relations are not a subject frequently explored in this kind of films, but director Amma Asante does a fine job examining Belle’s unique place in 18th century noble society, while also giving fans of the genre the romance and gorgeous costume design they expect.   

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The Leopard (1963)
The Leopard (1963)

‘Epic’ is an overused term in movies, but there’s no other way to describe Italian director Luchino Visconti’s sweeping depiction of the unification of Italy in the mid-19th century, as seen through the eyes of a Sicilian aristocrat hurtling toward obsolescence. His name is Don Fabrizio Corbera, played with detached authority by Burt Lancaster. Featuring maybe the greatest grand ball scene in cinema history, the movie is a stark departure from the neorealism Visconti is known for, but it exists today as his defining masterpiece, and time has hardly dulled its visual splendour.

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Russian Ark (2002)
Russian Ark (2002)

Shot from the perspective of an unseen narrator – who may or may not be a ghost – director Alexander Sokurov’s camera drifts through the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, condensing 300 years of Russian history into 96 minutes. But it’s far from being some simple virtual museum tour you might find on YouTube: as the camera continues to wander, exhibits come to life, with cameos from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Tsar Nicholas I. It ain’t Night at the Museum, either – the effect is genuinely dreamlike, and a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

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Love & Friendship (2016)
Love & Friendship (2016)

Whit Stillman doing Jane Austen? It’s a strangely sensible combination, considering that both are chiefly preoccupied with the social conventions of their day, and indeed, Stillman turns in an especially wry adaptation of Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale shines as an 18th century widow looking to land herself a rich new husband, only to wind up intertwined in her teenage daughter’s attempts to woo her own breadwinner. The MVP, though, is Tom Bennett, who damn near steals the show as the wealthy doofus who somehow ends up competing for both their hands.

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The Duchess (2008)
The Duchess (2008)

Keira Knightley seems like she was grown in a laboratory for the expressed purpose of starring in romantic period dramas. She is particularly well-cast in this bodice-ripper as Georgiana Cavendish, the smart, chic Duchess of Devonshire, who flailed against the restrictions placed on her as a woman living in 18th century aristocratic society – and especially her arranged marriage to aloof husband, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The movie doesn’t quite earn the seriousness director Saul Dibb seems to think it deserves, but both Knightley and Fiennes elevate the film above its flaws.

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Landing at No. 30 on Sight & Sound’s most recent critics poll of the greatest films of all-time, director Céline Sciamma’s quietly smouldering romantic drama is the definition of a modern classic. In 18th century France, a prickly aristocrat (Adèle Haenel) deigns to have her portrait painted by a talented young artist (Noémie Merlant), and the two soon find themselves embroiled in a passionate love affair. While the plot itself moves slowly, the emotional toll is almost overwhelming, aided by Claire Mathon’s stunning cinematography.  

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One of the outliers in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, this adaptation of Edith Wharton’s tale of forbidden Victorian romance is nonetheless grittier and far less melodramatic than it would’ve been in another director’s hands. Daniel Day-Lewis is a nobleman newly engaged to the beautifully boring Winona Ryder, who finds himself inflamed by his fiancée’s free-thinking – and therefore disgraced and ostracised – cousin, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. It may seem odd to say, but in its depiction of a cloistered social circle with its own built-in rules and mores, you really don’t have to squint too hard to see traces of Scorsese’s signature gangster epics.

22. Lola Montès (1955)

Max Ophüls’ maximalist depiction of the life and times of the titular 19th century dancer and courtesan is technically a biopic, but placing it within that genre does the scope and vision of the German director’s final film a major disservice. It’s far too grand for that, and in truth, its daring visual style – full of dizzying camera spins and breathtaking crane shots, not to mention the luminous Technicolor cinematography – is as much a tribute to Ophuls as its subject. Its narrative is largely fictional anyway, beginning with a down-and-out Montes working for a seedy American circus then flashing back, tableaux-style, through her various romances, with the likes of Franz Liszt and Bavaria’s King Ludwig I. But it remains a feast for the eyes, especially the filmmaker’s long-thought-lost original version, which was restored in 2008. 

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Who you got: Scottish queen Mary Stuart or Queen Elizabeth I? Freshman director Josie Rourke gives the monarchal tête-à-tête between the two warring cousins the feeling of a 1500s political thriller. It got dinged for historical inaccuracies, but the sumptuous costume design was nominated for an Oscar, and stars Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan – as Liz and Mary, respectively – both received high marks.

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Jane Austen’s enduring novel of manners has been adapted to the screen numerous times, most notably in the 2005 BBC miniseries. But for many, Joe Wright’s smart, sumptuous take is the definitive version. Keira Knightley shines as Lizzy Bennet, the hopeless romantic of the noble Bennet clan, while Matthew Macfadyen plays her paramour, the aloof aristocrat Fitzwilliam Darcy. It’s weird to think of now, given his current notoriety as scheming Midwestern bootlick Tom Wambsgans on Succession, but there exists a whole generation that couldn’t imagine anyone else in that role. We guess that’s why it’s called acting.

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Before helming Barbie, Greta Gerwig took on the challenge of adapting another beloved piece of intellectual property – and given the strong feelings not just for the classic Louisa May Alcott novel but the previous 1994 film version, it may have been an even bigger risk. But Gerwig proves up to the task, bringing modern sass to Alcott’s Civil War-era coming-of-age drama without sacrificing the elements that give the book its pan-generational appeal. Of course, it helps when you’ve got an elite cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen step into the roles of the tightly-bonded March sisters, while Laura Dern is excellent as their outspoken mother.

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