10 great costume dramas of the 21st century

From Marie Antoinette to Lady Macbeth, the period drama has experienced a major renaissance in recent years, with women directors and diverse stories coming to the fore.

4 January 2018

By Paul O’Callaghan

A Woman’s Life (2016)

Now arriving in UK cinemas having won the FIPRESCI critics’ award at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, Stéphane Brizé’s A Woman’s Life is a formally daring adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 debut novel. The film charts a French noblewoman’s arduous journey through adulthood, with a particular focus on her mistreatment and betrayal at the hands of male relatives.

Judith Chemla delivers a thrillingly nuanced performance as the beleaguered Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds, while Brizé astutely employs the squarer-screened Academy ratio and hand-held camerawork to convey a sense of stifling claustrophobia. His approach to the material is laudably understated, with one revelatory moment in particular tackled in an unsettlingly oblique manner. The result is a film that feels at once reverent to its historical setting and bracingly fresh.

The domestic period drama is long-established as one of the few corners of cinema in which women’s inner lives are given serious consideration, but the genre has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in recent years. In part, this can be attributed to the fact that women are finally being granted opportunities to get behind the camera and tell their own stories. As we inch towards more diverse storytelling on screen, characters other than white heterosexuals are also beginning to get a look-in. And while the costume drama remains largely fixated on the upper echelons of society, filmmakers like Brizé are frequently more openly cynical about hierarchical structures than their cinematic predecessors, and are thus all too eager to strip away the veneer of respectability to reveal the mundanity and malevolence that invariably lurk beneath.

Here are 10 further costume dramas of recent years that subvert the stuffy old stereotypes of well-heeled ladies politely sipping tea in painfully constrictive corsets.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Sofia Coppola’s irreverent biopic of the ill-fated French queen proved wildly divisive on initial release, with detractors incensed by its loose plotting, apparent disinterest in politics, and jarringly modern pop soundtrack. But scratch beneath its gaudily opulent surface and you’ll be rewarded with a hypnotic, impressionistic portrait of a young woman dripping in privilege but stifled by societal pressure.

Kirsten Dunst does a stand-up job of humanising the near-mythical figure, charting her journey from doe-eyed teenage princess to despised monarch. Her character’s slide towards decadence is portrayed as a desperate bid to assert some form of identity, when all around her view her as little more than a machine for the production of a royal heir.  Meanwhile, Coppola delivers a flat-out audiovisual feast, making the most of the unprecedented access she was given to the Palace of Versailles, and playfully incorporating anachronistic music and props to convey her protagonist’s rebellious spirit.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Director: Andrea Arnold

Wuthering Heights (2011)

In its sombre, rain-drenched later passages, A Woman’s Life is strikingly reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s bold, elemental take on Emily Brontë’s school syllabus staple. Like William Wyler’s enduring 1939 adaptation, this Wuthering Heights ignores the novel’s convoluted second half, honing in on the tragic central love story that sets Brontë’s sprawling saga in motion. But that’s pretty much where similarities between the two films end. Despite references in the book to Heathcliff’s “dark” complexion, the brooding antihero had hitherto only been played on screen by white actors. Arnold bucked this trend by casting Solomon Glave and James Howson as younger and older versions of the character.

Both deliver fine performances, but it’s the breathtakingly bleak Yorkshire landscape, infused with dark eroticism by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, that really steals the show. In aesthetic terms, this might be one of the most influential British films of the past decade, with recent indie gems such as William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth and Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country feeling particularly indebted to Arnold’s stark evocation of rural England. 

A Royal Affair (2012)

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

A Royal Affair (2012)

This sumptuous Danish epic is perhaps best known for catapulting Alicia Vikander towards Hollywood stardom and Oscar glory, but it’s a film of myriad  pleasures. Vikander plays the young Queen Caroline Mathilde, whose well-documented affair with royal physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) played a pivotal role in the spread of Enlightenment ideas.

Formally, A Royal Affair is a more conventional costume drama than many others in this list – it’s handsomely mounted, classically shot and perhaps a little stagey in places. But director Nikolaj Arcel and co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg deftly condense decades of history into a cracking yarn, packed with intrigue, lively political debate and bodice-ripping. Mikkelsen and Vikander bring to life a relationship sustained more by grand shared goals than by raw chemistry, while Mikkel Boe Følsgaard adds a touch of giddy unpredictability as the unstable King Christian VII.

Belle (2013)

Director: Amma Asante

Belle (2013)

Amma Asante’s slick second feature explores and embellishes the true story of mixed race aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of British naval officer Sir John Lindsay. With precious little known about her life, the film takes as its starting point a 1779 painting of Belle standing beside her white cousin, which seems to express a degree of equality between the pair.

Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay deftly smash together sweeping, Austenesque romance with an altogether darker aspect of British 18th-century society – its participation in the slave trade. The specificity of Belle’s precarious position in life ensures that the drama feels fresh, even when the filmmaking adheres to genre conventions. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s central performance is measured and moving, equal parts defiant fieriness and deep-seated uncertainty.

Amour fou (2014)

Director: Jessica Hausner

Amour Fou (2014)

Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner here offers a dazzlingly unexpected spin on an enduringly fascinating true story – the suicide-murder of German poet Heinrich von Kleist and his companion Henriette Vogel in 1811. It’s a story of doomed passion ripe for romanticisation, but Hausner heads in precisely the opposite direction, depicting von Kleist (Christian Friedel) as a comically gloomy narcissist, bizarrely fixated on the idea of luring an impressionable woman into a death pact.

Amour fou plays fast and loose with established facts, imagining that Henriette (Birte Schnöink) wasn’t even his first choice for the post; Heinrich only begins to work his dubious charms on her after a rebuttal from his altogether more headstrong cousin Marie (the reliably wonderful Sandra Hüller). The result is a mordantly funny and unsettling study of male privilege and female sacrifice, which also offers a rare cinematic glimpse of Romantic-era Berlin.

Carol (2015)

Director: Todd Haynes

Carol (2015)

Todd Haynes’ spellbinding lesbian love story, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, was named the best LGBT film of all time in a 2016 BFI poll. It’s also one of this century’s most exquisitely rendered period dramas, in which the haughty glamour and rigid social structure of 1950s New York seem to physically stifle the passions of our protagonists.

Cate Blanchett smoulders as the titular Carol, an affluent, discontented housewife who falls into a clandestine affair with Therese (Rooney Mara), a young aspiring photographer also trapped in an unfulfilling heterosexual relationship. As the pair navigate explosive new emotional and sexual territory, Haynes keeps the viewer at a distance, reflecting his characters’ deeply ingrained sense of propriety. But while the film may strike some as chilly in places, this restrained approach makes the final-act emotional payoffs all the more rewarding. Sandy Powell’s immaculate costumes and Carter Burwell’s elegiac score are the icing on the cake.

Love & Friendship (2016)

Director: Whit Stillman

Love & Friendship (2016)

Whit Stillman’s modern comedies of manners invariably have one foot stuck in a bygone era, and his erudite young American characters are often amusingly enamoured with outmoded notions of European sophistication. Here he switches things up while remaining firmly in his comfort zone, bringing a contemporary comedic sensibility to this sprightly adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published short novel Lady Susan.

Kate Beckinsale delivers a career-best turn as the scheming Susan, a young widow determined to maintain the lavish lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed, despite serious financial woes. Gliding through life on good looks and a razor-sharp tongue, she turns every card she’s dealt to her advantage, ruthlessly playing her relatives against one another as she advances her social position. Beckinsale is backed by a stellar supporting cast, including Chloë Sevigny as her mistreated American confidante and Tom Bennett operating on an entirely different comic register as the sublimely stupid Sir James Martin.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

Director: Terence Davies

A Quiet Passion (2016)

Terence Davies has spent his entire illustrious career perceptively pondering decades and centuries gone by, but this biopic of great American poet Emily Dickinson might be his richest, most fully-realised period piece to date. It’s decidedly a film of two halves; the first a delightfully droll depiction of Dickinson’s formative years; the second, an unflinching account of her steady slide towards reclusiveness. Cynthia Nixon is sensational as the adult Emily, bristling against the conventions of polite 19th-century society, and armed to the teeth with acerbic put-downs for anyone who might be presumptuous enough to try and pigeonhole her.

Befitting its subject, A Quiet Passion is an introspective, often claustrophobic affair, rarely leaving the confines of the Dickinson homestead. But its psychological scope is vast, with Davies and Nixon working in blissful harmony to evoke a vivid sense of a complex, conflicted historical figure, while elegantly steering away from biopic clichés.

The Death of Louis XIV (2016)

Director: Albert Serra

The Death of Louis XIV (2016)

Albert Serra’s quietly radical historical drama charts, in what almost feels like real time, the final moments of the legendary French monarch as he slowly succumbs to a severe case of gangrene. This admittedly off-putting premise is rendered considerably more appealing by a streak of deadpan humour, with Serra revelling in the absurdity and excesses of aristocratic behaviour and the peculiarities of 18th-century medical science.

But by and large this is a sincere affair, given an extra jolt of poignancy by the fact that the dying king is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, for many the forever-young poster child of the French New Wave thanks to his turn as teen rebel Antoine in François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959). Léaud more than rises to the occasion of this career-capping role, delivering a deeply moving portrait of a man stubbornly determined to live up to his near-mythical reputation, and to die with dignity intact. Serra, meanwhile, shoots every scene like a Rembrandt painting, allowing the viewer to luxuriate in the jarringly flamboyant costumes, sumptuous interiors and richly atmospheric chiaroscuro lighting.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Director: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Beneath the genteel trappings of William Oldroyd’s handsome debut feature beats a poisoned heart. Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this brutally efficient psychological thriller finds young Katherine (a revelatory Florence Pugh) in almost comically bleak circumstances, trapped on a remote English estate with her cruelly withholding husband (Paul Hilton) and flat-out detestable father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank).  Left to her own devices for a spell, she embarks on an intensely passionate and plainly ill-advised affair with dishy groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).

While it’s fairly evident from the outset that things aren’t likely to end happily, Lady Macbeth is much more than the rampage of righteous revenge its ominous early scenes seem to promise. Pugh strikes a deft balancing act, ensuring that Katherine remains compellingly empathetic, but never to the extent that we can revel in her diabolical scheming guilt-free.

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