The period drama today tends to be a romantic fantasy, whether light-hearted or darker in tone, that fulfills a desire for higher-stakes lovemaking and the sublimation of an orgasmic high into the permanent state of marriage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does rather limit the scope of our vision of the past. While most of the films on this list qualify as romances and many as fantasies, they have adult political and social subtexts, and the relationships between the characters are complex and less romanticized. All of the films on this list are set in the 19th century.
Bright Star (2009)
This lovely drama recounts the true story of the poet John Keats and his sadly brief love affair with Fanny Brawne. The cinematography and locations are beyond gorgeous and the acting superb, particularly from Ben Wishaw who plays Keats. Jane Campion's screenplay is historically accurate and yet it feels quite contemporary. This is also a rare film that portrays writing as the hard work that it is.
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
The mixture of fiction, metafiction, and history in John Fowles's original novel make it an unlikely candidate for a successful film adaptation, but screenwriter Harold Pinter brilliantly chose to make the film a drama within a drama. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons portray the troubled Victorians of the period story and the actors playing them in the meta-narrative. Of particular note is the score, laced with viola solos, by Carl Davis.
Jane Eyre (2011)
There are many good adaptations of Jane Eyre (and also quite a few lousy ones) and I wondered when the trailer for this version was released whether it was really worth it to make yet another interpretation. But Cary Fukunaga proved that it is well worth it. Fukunaga's version stresses the gothic over the romantic, the traumatic over the nostalgic, at times resembling a horror film. More than any other adaptation, this one addresses the sexual ambiguity and repressed feminism of the novel.
Lorna Doone (2000)
This two-part television miniseries is a strong adaptation of the R. D. Blackmore novel. Its focus on a vanished English class, the yeomanry, is unusual. The casting is mostly good, though there are a few clunkers, but the story is interesting enough to overcome the limitations of the actors. Game of Thrones fans will be excited to see Aiden Gillen in a major role.
The BBC consistently turns out high quality literary miniseries, but none of them has ever quite matched the standard set by Middlemarch. A complex portrait of a provincial town, teetering on the edge of social change and the industrial revolution, and of its denizens, the series addresses wealth and obligation, the limitations of generosity and idealism, class mobility, the impossibility of happy marriage within the meager confines of gender conformity, and a host of other complex issues. And it's really enormous fun.
The Piano (1993)
Another wonderful film from Jane Campion, The Piano has a highly unusual plot. Holly Hunter plays a mute woman who, along with her young daughter (Anna Paquin), travels to New Zealand to marry a landowner there (Sam Neill). She brings with her a piano, an instrument that has for many years replaced her speaking voice. The film's precise portrayal of the incremental and almost imperceptible steps that lead to violence is exceptional. Anna Paquin, at only 9 years old, is a stand-out.
My all-time favorite film from my favorite Italian director, Luchino Visconti, this operatic drama set during the tumult of the Risorgimento in Venice is extremely bitter and absolutely brilliant. From the opening scene at La Fenice opera house where Il trovatore is being performed to the battle of Custoza, Visconti presents scenes of a now vanished political and social order in decline just as the Italian states are being unified. Alida Valli and Farley Granger give their best ever performances, the sets and costumes are exquisite, and it's all accompanied by music by Verdi and Bruckner.
Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel can be uncomfortable viewing given the contrast between the film's condemnation of Tess's rape and Polanski's own behavior, but it is nevertheless a very good film. Though it was filmed in France, the atmosphere of 19th century rural Dorset is beautifully evoked and Nastassja Kinski gives a sensitive and nuanced performance of a complex and often contradictory character.
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Though this may not be the most faithful version of Emily Bronte's only novel, it remains the best film adaptation. Laurence Olivier embodies Heathcliff (I personally cannot accept any other actor in the part) and he is well supported by Merle Oberon as Cathy and David Niven as Edgar. Though the final scene is overly romanticized, the film as a whole is a fascinating exploration of obsessive love and revengeful ambition.