So you’ve seen Pride and Prejudice, Little Women and Outlander, and are looking for new period dramas to watch (if you haven’t seen those, you should definitely check them out first). In this list, I have defined “period drama” as anything pre-1900’s. Some of these selections are cheesy, some serious, some are musicals and some are so emotional you’ll be reaching for the tissue box, but they will all transport you.
1. The Personal History of David Copperfield
Based on the 19th century novel by Charles Dickens, Dev Patel stars as the titular character of David Copperfield. Because the novel was semi-autobiographical, the character has always been assumed to be white and has been played by white actors in adaptations. But British-Indian actor Patel put his own spin on the role and was praised by many critics for his performance. The film chronicles his life growing up poor in Victorian England, with a father pursued by debt creditors, and currently holds a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
2. Moulin Rouge!
This Oscar-winning 2001 film, starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, is a jukebox musical, meaning it repurposes modern songs for the context of the story. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, who also helmed The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge! tells the story of a young writer who falls in love with the lead actress of the cabaret. Their love is forbidden, as the young actress has been promised to the Duke of Monroth, and the dramatic series of events unfold from there.
3. Emma (2020)
Released in February 2020, as the world was beginning to shut down, Emma flew under most moviegoers’ radar. Anya Taylor-Joy takes her turn in the classic Jane Austen role, and does so remarkably. The film is witty, fast-paced and romantic, following the story of Emma Woodhouse, who is bored of her wealthy life and begins to make matches for her friends—causing more trouble than good. If you’re looking for a more lighthearted period piece, this is the movie for you.
This (as of now) three-season British television show was released on PBS in the United States and quickly became a success among historical drama fans. It details the life and reign of Queen Victoria, played by Jenna Coleman. The creator admits that some characters and plot lines were invented for dramatic purposes, but is mostly factually accurate and covers many important events in British history.
5. Lady Macbeth
Do not be fooled by the title, this film has very little to do with the Shakespearean character of Lady Macbeth, except for perhaps her ruthless nature. Starring Oscar-nominated Florence Pugh, this film chronicles the life of a sheltered woman trapped in a loveless marriage who goes to great lengths to get out of it. Certainly not for the faint of heart, it contains graphic murder and sex scenes, but has stunning performances, particularly from Pugh, and will leave the viewer stunned at what unfolds.
6. Anna Karenina
Starring Keira Knightley, who is known as a staple of the period drama genre, and other fantastic actors such as Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Alicia Vikander, this film tells the story of a forbidden affair between two nobles in 19th-century Russia. Though it has a somewhat low Rotten Tomatoes score of 63 percent, Anna Karenina will become a favorite for those who are attracted by gaudy, over-the-top drama and gorgeous costumes, for which designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar. It is available to watch on Netflix, so fans of Pride and Prejudice should be sure to check it out.
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This French film (subtitled in English for its international release) is from the point of view of a young female painter who is commissioned to paint the portrait of an aristocrat as a wedding gift to the man she has been betrothed to. However, there are no men in the entire runtime of the movie. Instead, it almost entirely focuses on the love story between its two leads, and has been praised for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship. It is visually gorgeous, romantic and moving, and you should have a tissue box ready for the last scene.
Okay, so Reign was a CW television show that went on for four seasons, and is the least historically accurate of any of the selections on this list, whether that be in terms of storylines, costumes or characters. However, it is, a great binge-watch, it’s available on Netflix, and it’s hard to dislike. Telling the barely-true story of Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1500s, it trades in facts for fun and will have you hooked from the first episode.
9. The Favourite
Film fans will likely have heard of this one, as it won Olivia Coleman an Oscar in 2019. Falling mostly into the genre of comedy despite being set in the 18th century, it features Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, whose characters fight for the affections of the Queen (Coleman). If you need a laugh, but still want to stare at carefully-detailed costumes and sets, this is the one for you.
10. The Spanish Princess
Available to watch on Hulu and Amazon Prime, this 16-episode limited series tells the story of Catherine of Aragon and her marriage to Henry VII of England. In the United States, it was favorably reviewed, but in the main character’s home nation of Spain, it was lauded for being offensive, inaccurate and stereotypical. Still, if accuracy is of no matter, it is wildly entertaining.