From "Downton Abbey" to "Pride and Prejudice"
There is something comforting about a period drama. Perhaps it's the escapism we are afforded by looking into an era in which we do not live or the aesthetic that's unfamiliar to our own. Or, maybe it is the lavish production that often accompanies period pieces, offering endless hours of dreaming and distraction. Whatever the reason for their appeal, costume dramas continue to beguile contemporary audiences. Here, we round up our 10 favorite television and film dramas set in bygone eras.
One of the most popular period dramas of all time, “Downton Abbey” has been a huge success in both the UK and the US. The series, which launched in 2010, follows the aristocratic lives of the Crawley family between 1912 and 1926. To date, it is the most-watched television show on both ITV and PBS, and subsequently became the most successful British costume drama series since the 1981 television program “Brideshead Revisited”. In 2019, its creator Julian Fellowes followed up its six seasons with a feature-length film starring many of the original cast.
“The Crown” has made fans out of period drama detractors and the most steadfast anti-royalists. The show uses the life of Queen Elizabeth II as its focus, offering insights into the inner dynamics and workings of the British royal family, tracking her life since she was young up until more recent years. It has received acclaim for its acting performances, cinematography and gripping storytelling.
“Poldark” is the show that made Sundays sexy again. Yes, the nation may have stayed in for “Downton Abbey” and “Indian Summers”, but it was “Poldark”, which emerged on our screens in 2015, that sent female reviewers and audiences aquiver. Starring Eleanor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner, the show became a hit almost instantly. The public became obsessed with the relationship between the aesthetically gifted Ross Poldark and his wild-haired wife, Demelza.
“Pride & Prejudice”
There have been many Jane Austen adaptations, but none (bar perhaps 1995's “Sense & Sensibility”) are as convincing and charming as the 1995 BBC version. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth star as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who realize that they, despite their different temperaments and social standings, are perfect for one another. The pairings are believable, the supporting cast is excellent and it accurately represents Austen's intelligent, sharp dialogue. It also delivers one of the most unforgettable scenes in history, Firth's Darcy dripping wet after emerging from a lake, and for that alone, we are grateful.
Based on Ian McEwan's book of the same name, “Atonement” is a film about love, war and redemption. The narrative starts with one awful mistake made by a 13-year-old child that prompts a tragic series of events set amid the backdrop of World War II. Featuring a young Saoirse Ronan, as well as James McAvoy and an ever-stylish Keira Knightley, this is a complex film that asks whether we can really atone for our previous crimes.
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
“The French Lieutenant's Woman” interweaves two love stories set in different periods, one in the Victorian era and another in the 1980s. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons star as the romantic leads in both, with the former earning herself an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win for Best Actress. Their performances, viewed today, might feel on the hammy side, but the character of the French lieutenant's woman is still interesting - a woman ahead of her time who refused to conform to what was expected.
The 13-hour serialization of Evelyn Waugh's novel may have first aired in 1981, but it is still rightly remembered as one of history's finest period dramas. Starring a young Jeremy Irons as lead protagonist Charles Ryder, the story follows Ryder's relationship with a wealthy and eccentric family called the Flytes, who live in a mansion called Brideshead Castle. Sophisticated, nostalgic and hedonistic, “Brideshead Revisited” offers escapism into a bygone world of the English good life.
“Life is Beautiful”
The triple Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful” is about a Jewish man who uses humor to shield his young son from the horrors of living in a concentration camp. One of the highest-grossing foreign-language films of all time, it is directed by Italian-born Roberto Benigni. Released in 1997, the tear-jerking movie stirred controversy for allegedly diminishing the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. However, the critical acclaim that the film received speaks for itself. “Life is Beautiful” is a brave testament to the power of imagination and resilience in the toughest of scenarios.
Jane Campion perfectly depicts the intensity and pain of first love in “Bright Star”, which explores the passionate relationship between 19th-century poet John Keats and his muse, Fanny Brawne. He was a dreamer, and she was a realist, but they fell madly in love anyway, much to the disdain of her family, who hoped that she would marry someone of wealth. Ultimately, Fanny and John's story ended when the sickly poet died young, aged 25. “Bright Star” is a delicate, beautiful homage to heart-stopping passion.
“A Room with a View”
Helena Bonham Carter was just 19 when she landed the life-changing role of Lucy Honeychurch in 1985’s “A Room with A View”. Set between Florence, in Italy, and Surrey, in Edwardian England, this compelling romance sees Lucy fall in love with the unsuitable George Emerson while on holiday in Tuscany. Her chaperone immediately whisks her back to the U.K., where she becomes engaged to the smug Cecil, played by a young Daniel Day-Lewis. Not long after, George moves nearby, and Lucy is forced to make a big decision about what she really wants from life.