10 great films set in the Edwardian era

Howards End, James Ivory’s adaptation of EM Forster’s novel about love across Edwardian England’s class divide, turns 25 this year. Here’s 10 other great films set in England at the time.

David Parkinson
Updated:

Howards End (1992)

Howards End (1992)

The last named period in British history, the Edwardian era ran from 22 January 1901 to 6 May 1910. Had Edward VII lived a few more years or had the British Empire enjoyed its own Belle Époque, this Top 10 marking the reissue of Merchant Ivory’s Howards End (1992) might look rather different. As it is, you might wonder why there’s no room for such other EM Forster adaptations as Maurice (1987) and Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) or such handsome literary evocations of this age of elegance as A Summer Story (1988), December Bride (1991), The Wings of the Dove (1997) and Angel (2007). But this was a period of surprising diversity.

It was a time of contrasting literary ambitions, as biopics like Nora (2000), Finding Neverland (2004) and Miss Potter (2006) suggest. Indeed, Joseph Strick’s recounting of the events in Dublin on 16 June 1904 in Ulysses (1967) provides cinema’s biggest contrast to the popular notions of Edwardiana presented in feel-good fare like Three Men in a Boat (1956), My Fair Lady (1964) and Half a Sixpence (1967). Such idealisations hide a grimmer urban reality.
 

Frank Mottershaw and William Haggar’s A Daring Daylight Robbery

Don’t forget that films were actually being made in Edwardian Britain. While Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were recording everyday life, George Albert Smith dabbled with social realism in The Death of Poor Joe, which is the earliest surviving film based on a Dickens character, while James Williamson experimented with cross-cutting in Fire! (both 1901). The following year, Frank Mottershaw and William Haggar pioneered BritCrime with A Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray, while Cecil Hepworth refined their techniques in the exciting Rescued By Rover (1905), which he followed with The Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (1908), one of the earliest examples of a sequel.

Hepworth was also involved in the bid to synchronise sound and vision with his Vivaphone system, which appeared in 1907 alongside Walturdaw’s Cinematophone. Moreover, Walter R. Booth showcased ingenious special effects in The ‘?’ Motorist (1906), while Arthur Melbourne Cooper created an early animated classic with Dreams of Toyland (1908) and Percy Smith perfected time-lapse photography in The Birth of a Flower (1910). As the decade drew to a close, the multifarious nature of British cinema could be seen in Percy Stow’s film d’art version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1908) and producer Charles Urban’s Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910). But, sadly, this golden age proved all too brief.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Director Sidney Lanfield

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

As the Sherlock Holmes Society notes on its website, 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation of a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mystery (published in The Strand magazine between August 1901 and April 1902) was the first film featuring Baker Street’s most celebrated consulting detective to be ‘kept correctly in period’. Richard Day and Hans Peters’s production design is certainly atmospheric, although cinematographer Peverell Marley struggles to conceal the backlot nature of Dartmoor in some of the daytime shots and no amount of arch angling and fast cutting could convince audiences of the savage temperament of the eponymous star, a 140lb Great Dane named Blitzen, who was dubbed ‘Chief’ in the press notes in case he sounded too Germanic at a time of mounting tension in Europe. However, this faithful rendition is best remembered for the first teaming of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson and the shocking last line: ‘Oh, Watson, the needle!’

Major Barbara (1941)

Director Gabriel Pascal

Major Barbara (1941)

As a Fabian socialist, George Bernard Shaw was often accused of using the stage as a soapbox. But the ideas expressed in this personally adapted tale of a Salvation Army major and her arms manufacturing father struck a chord with embattled audiences. A keen student of cinema, Shaw made 19 changes to give the action more visual dynamism and was frequently on set to advise debuting director Gabriel Pascal. However, editor David Lean supervised much of the camerawork, while an uncredited Harold French worked with the exceptional ensemble led by Wendy Hiller, Robert Morley and Rex Harrison. Given the restrictions imposed by wartime filming, Vincent Korda and John Bryan work wonders with the set for the Undershaft & Lazarus armaments factory, while William Walton’s score rousingly counterpoints the satirical broadsides on pacifism, profit and poverty. No wonder Shaw could boast, ‘The art of telling a story is a knack very few people have. I am one of them.’

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director Robert Hamer

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Essentially an Edwardian film noir, Ealing’s darkest comedy was adapted by director Robert Hamer and playwright John Dighton from Roy Horniman’s 1907 tome, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. A questionable anti-semitic satire, the book was much-altered to make murderous social climber Louis Mazzini the son of an Italian opera singer and the disowned scion of a ducal family. The decision to let Alec Guinness play all six members of the Chalfont clan proved inspired, especially as he managed to make characters like the insufferable Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Henry the genial shutterbug and ballooning suffragette Lady Agatha so distinctive. But Dennis Price also excels as the class-conscious avenger whose inverted snobbery almost costs him his neck after he plumps for widow Valerie Hobson over scheming old flame Joan Greenwood. William Kellner’s settings and Anthony Mendleson’s costumes are as impeccable as Douglas Slocombe’s elegiac photography. But the secret of this timeless classic is Hamer’s mastery of the mischievously macabre tone.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Director Robert Stevenson

Mary Poppins (1964)

As anyone familiar with John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr Banks (2013) will know, PL Travers made Walt Disney wait several years before agreeing to sell him the rights to her deeply personal stories about a London nanny and then heartily disapproved of his plans to re-set them in 1910 (‘the age of men’) and depict them with a mix of live action and animation. Yet this remains one of the studio’s best-loved pictures and it fires the imagination more readily than rival Edwardian kidpix like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The Secret Garden (1993). It’s debatable whether it would have culled five Oscars (including Best Actress) from its 13 nominations with Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury or Mary Martin dispensing the spoonfuls of sugar in Cherry Tree Lane. But, notwithstanding flaws like Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent and the regrettable tendency to romanticise penury, generations have been enchanted by Julie Andrews and her unique approach to childcare.

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

Director Basil Dearden

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

Tensions simmered across Europe during this period, with plucky Oxford graduates Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale foiling a 1901 German invasion of Blighty in Tony Maylan’s adaptation of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1979). But Bertie the Peacemaker (as seen on TV in Fall of Eagles, 1974 and Edward the Seventh, 1975) kept his feuding relations under control and crops up periodically in the guise of Oliver Tomlin in Basil Dearden’s playful take on an unfinished Jack London novel that was completed in 1963 by crime writer Robert L. Fish. Following the all-star example of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), Ken Annakin’s bracing account of a 1910 London-Paris air race, Dearden and writer-designer Michael Relph keep their tongues firmly in their cheeks as aspiring reporter Diana Rigg pursues cartel chairman Oliver Reed to various continental cities under the hawkish gaze of ennobled press baron, Telly Savalas. No masterpiece, but fiendishly subversive.

The Railway Children (1970)

Director Lionel Jeffries

The Railway Children (1970)

The international situation also impinges upon Lionel Jeffries’s beloved retelling of Edith Nesbit’s novel about three siblings forced to acclimatise to life in a remote Yorkshire village after their civil servant father is arrested for spying on Christmas Day, 1904. Reprising the role of Bobbie Waterbury two years after headlining a seven-part BBC series, Jenny Agutter would succeed Dinah Sheridan as the writer-mother struggling to make ends meet in Catherine Morshead’s 2000 remake. But, while everyone remembers Agutter’s breathless climactic utterance as the steam clears on the platform at Oakworth Station, she’s very much part of an estimable ensemble, with Sally Thomsett (Phyllis) and Gary Warren (Peter) helping her ‘play at being poor’ and Bernard Cribbins genially being ‘about it’ as porter Albert Perks. Things are certainly never dull at Three Chimneys, with Russian dissidents, landslides, paper chases and birthday surprises keeping the resourceful trio occupied. Of course, it’s shamelessly romanticised. But who cares?

Breaker Morant (1980)

Director Bruce Beresford

Breaker Morant (1980)

Prince Charles so admired this exposé of British military hypocrisy during the Boer War that he arranged a special screening for the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Based on Kenneth Ross’s stage adaptation of Kit Denton’s novel, The Breaker, the action is set in 1902 and centres on the court martial of three members of the Bushveldt Carbineers after Boer POWs and a German missionary are killed during a raid sanctioned by their imperial commanders. Similarities with Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) are inescapable, as Jack Thompson (who won the Best Supporting Actor prize at Cannes) seeks justice for Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald from judges who have already reached their verdict. Made for just $800,000, this study of the conflict atrocity mindset proved a key picture in the Australian New Wave after its screenplay earned an Oscar nomination and the line, ‘Shoot straight you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it!’, caught the nation’s post-Vietnam mood.

The Wind in the Willows (1983)

Director Mark Hall

The Wind in the Willows (1983)

Narrated by Basil Rathbone, the Kenneth Grahame-inspired segment of Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949) takes place very precisely between 10 June 1909 and 1 January 1910. Subsequent animated versions by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass (1987) and Dave Unwin (1995) and Terry Jones’s 1996 live-action take have followed suit. But none captured the mood of Mole End, the Wild Wood and Toad Hall more enchantingly than producers Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall in this stop-motion masterclass, which spawned a 52-part TV series (1984-90). The voice work of Ian Carmichael (Rat), Michael Hordern (Badger), Richard Pearson (Mole) and David Jason (Toad) is impeccable, but it’s the characters that Cosgrove and Bridget Appleby fashioned after the illustrations of both EH Shepard and Arthur Rackham that make this so irresistible. Nevertheless, it would have been fascinating to see how Guillermo del Toro’s vision might have turned out if Disney hadn’t insisted on a skateboarding dude Toad.

A Room with a View (1985)

Director James Ivory

A Room with a View (1985)

There was something about Edwardian England and EM Forster’s view of it that captivated American director James Ivory, Indian producer Ismail Merchant and German screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Costing $2.8 million, Merchant Ivory’s interpretation of this 1908 novel transformed the company’s fortunes after it grossed over $60 million and won Oscars for its screenplay, art direction and costumes. In only her second feature, Helena Bonham Carter (who quickly tired of being a ‘corset sex symbol’) blows away the cobwebs that had settled on British period pieces, as Lucy Honeychurch’s Florentine sojourn leaves her torn between prissy fiancé Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the bashfully passionate George Emerson (Julian Sands). Three decades on this is often derided for its chocolate-box visuals and the national treasure supporting turns of Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Judi Dench and Simon Callow. But beneath the heritage production values are challengingly sophisticated ideas on class, gender, art, love and Little English attitudes. Take another look.

Dean Spanley (2008)

Director Toa Fraser

Dean Spanley (2008)

There have been few quirkier evocations of the Edwardian era than this absorbing fable about a Welsh Spaniel reincarnating as a clergyman with a fondness for Imperial Tokay. Deftly adapted by Alan Sharp from Lord Dunsany’s obscure 1936 novella, My Talks With Dean Spanley, New Zealander Toa Fraser’s sophomore feature is essentially a shaggy dog story. But the fine details in Andrew McAlpine’s genteel production design and Leon Narbey’s silky cinematography convey the melancholic mood that has descended upon Jeremy Northam since he started visiting father Peter O’Toole each Thursday in a bid to atone for his brother’s death in the Boer War. However, swami Art Malik’s lecture on the transmigration of souls draws Northam into the orbit of Sam Neill, a dignified cleric who lapses into canine reminiscences after a few glasses of sweet Hungarian wine. The performances are faultless, while the insights into childhood memories, bereavement, keeping up appearances and father-son relations are deceptively incisive.

 

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