The pleasures of period dramas are greater than the beautiful and, to our eyes, exotic costumes, and the recreations of vanished cities and societies. Period drama, in delineating antiquated social problems, customs, and conventions, exposes our own modern problems, customs, and conventions all the more clearly, by highlighting the differences and not infrequently the similarities between the past and the present. While the movies on the first list were all set in the nineteenth century, this list covers more ground, from the 1750s to the 1930s. Given my love of period drama, odds are there will be a third installment.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
One of Stanley Kubrick's most fascinating and complex films, Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, recounts the adventures of its hero, from the battlefields of the Seven Years' War to the gambling parlors of the most chic spas and resorts across the continent to the boudoir of Lady Lyndon. Director of photography John Alcott, determined to give the film a more historically accurate atmosphere, shot all of the interiors without recourse to electric light and won a well-deserved Oscar for his extraordinary cinematography.
The Bostonians (1984)
This adaptation of the Henry James novel was a difficult and unlikely project, but Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala brought its story of nineteenth century feminism, misogyny, and eroticism brilliantly alive. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Olive Chancellor, a wealthy single woman determined to improve the lot of her sex and deeply infatuated with an innocent and charismatic inspirational speaker (Madeleine Potter). Her erotically charged monopoly of her friend is complicated by the arrival of a dashing and very old-fashioned Southern landowner (Christopher Reeve).
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
A pair of extravagant diamond earrings are the axis around which the characters in this film revolve. They are first sold by Louise, a cosseted noblewoman whose opulent lifestyle leads her into debt, who tells her husband that they were stolen, only for the jeweler to send them back to the husband, and as the earrings pass from hand to hand, the stakes for each of the characters grow steadily higher. Director Max Ophuls has a remarkably intuitive grasp of gender inequity and his films consistently portray complex and deeply unhappy women, trapped by their marriages, social position, and lack of occupation.
Howards End (1992)
Merchant and Ivory's best film and one of the best literary adaptations of all time, Howards End, based on the brilliant novel by E. M. Forster, is a kaleidoscopic social portrait of the relationships between the classes in Edwardian England: the Wilcox family are affluent capitalists, the Schlegel sisters, two cultured and socially progressive young women, represent the bourgeoisie, and the Basts are a lower middle class couple. A beautiful score by Richard Robbins, Tony Pierce-Roberts's cinematography, the most gorgeous I've ever seen, and first-class performances by Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West make this one of the finest period dramas of all time.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
This sumptuously romantic tragedy set in early 20th century Vienna, another wonderful film by brilliant director Max Ophuls, stars Joan Fontaine as a young woman infatuated with a handsome concert pianist and womanizer (Louis Jourdan) who has no idea that she exists. From this slim premise emerges a richly moving and complex love story, a fairy tale about unrequited love, its sentimentality cut by a thick vein of astringent realism. One of the few truly flawless films ever made.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
As good as, if not superior to, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's second feature is based on the Booth Tarkington novel and recounts the downfall of the wealthy Midwestern Amberson family, brought low by the modern age, represented by the automobile. Welles makes superb use of his favorite actors, from Joseph Cotten to Agnes Moorehead, and inspires wonderful performances from B-actor Tim Holt and forgotten muse of the silent screen Dolores Costello, and although purists may complain that the final editing was taken over by the studio, the result is one of the most sophisticated, bitter, and intelligent American dramas of the 40's.
My Fair Lady (1964)
With a knockout score by Lerner and Lowe, gorgeous couture by Cecil Beaton, and lively direction by George Cukor, this musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, is purely delightful. Rex Harrison gives one of his best performances as Professor Henry Higgins, a deeply arrogant and even more deeply misogynistic scholar of phonetics, who, along with his friend Colonel Pickering (charmingly portrayed by Wilfrid Hyde White), decides to transform Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a convincing aristocrat. Hepburn is enchanting and extremely funny, particularly at the Ascot races where she bawls at Dover to "move your bloomin' arse."
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins star as the housekeeper and butler of Darlington Hall, where a meeting of politicians has been convened in an attempt to negotiate a peaceful detente between supporters and opponents of Hitler's regime. Hopkins is the perfect domestic servant - unflappable, efficient, all-seeing, and utterly invisible - and while Thompson is equally efficient, she refuses to ignore Lord Darlington's ugly support of Hitler and his anti-semitism. A fascinating glimpse of the moral pitfalls and complex interdependencies that emerge in the relationships between domestic servants and the people who employ them, The Remains of the Day is the thinking person's Downton Abbey.
A Room With a View (1985)
Another wonderful collaboration from Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this faithful adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel is about Miss Lucy Honeychurch, a prim young English miss whose passions are aroused on a tour of Italy, where she meets George Emerson, a free-thinking and unabashedly romantic young man, whose father has offered her their room with a view. An astute selection of Puccini arias, exquisite locations and cinematography, and a witty script give Forster his due as a perceptive and ingeniously critical chronicler of English manners and transgressions.