Most period films focus on the romance before marriage, the intrigues of courtship, ending with a wedding. This is a legacy of the historical difficulty of obtaining annulment or divorce (Henry VIII would have executed fewer people if he could have just gotten divorced). Marriage, for many centuries, was a permanent legal bond and in the nineteenth century the idea of a faithful romantic love culminating in marriage became increasingly influential and continues to exert influence today. Since proximity and lack of obstacles render most romantic plots mundane, and in period films, marriage is permanent and thus either a happy or tragic culmination of events, the aftermath of the wedding is much more rarely the subject of period drama. These ten period films all examine marriage, though from a diverse range of class and cultural perspectives.
The Dead (1987)
John Huston's final film, a meticulous adaptation of the story by James Joyce, stars Anjelica Huston as Gretta, who with her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) attends an Epiphany party in Dublin at the home of two elderly sisters (Cathleen Delaney and Helena Carroll). The slim plot follows the minute happenings at the party, which ends with a young tenor singing a traditional Irish song. This song leads to the revelation that Gretta lost a lover, forever transforming her marriage. A rare film that focuses on the significant happenings of the psyche and their devastating effect on an outwardly unchanged reality.
Everlasting Moments (2008)
This Swedish film, directed by Jan Troell and based on a true story, is about Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), the put-upon wife of a boorish and frequently intoxicated husband (Mikael Persbrandt), who in learning photography expresses her inner life. Everlasting Moments is far too complex a film to be clearly aligned with any particular ideology, though the subject matter easily suggests a feminist interpretation. The cinematography, fittingly for a film about the power of image-making, is absolutely stunning.
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
This kaleidoscopic drama directed by auteur Max Ophuls stars Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica, as three bored, over-sexed blue bloods, whose lives unravel as a set of diamond earrings pass from hand to hand. This is one of the superlatively great films of cinematic history, a piercing examination of class and gender set among the French noblesse, a profound and beautifully filmed analysis of the entanglements of men and women in an inequitable world.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman's final film, partially based upon his own unhappy childhood living under the strict command of his Lutheran pastor father, follows Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), brother and sister, whose fragile world is shattered by their widowed mother's (Ewa Froling) second marriage to an ascetic and paternalistic Lutheran minister (Jan Malsmjo). The cinematography by Sven Nykvist, Bergman's long-time collaborator, was never more beautiful, capturing nuances of color and movement, in this haunting, nostalgic and yet deeply disturbing masterpiece.
The Good Earth (1937)
Based on Pearl S. Buck's classic novel, The Good Earth, which tells the story of a Chinese farmer, his long-suffering and virtuous wife, and their brutal struggles to survive famine and civil unrest, was a risky project in 1937. Though today many may feel uncomfortable with the cross-racial casting (the vast majority of the characters are played by white actors), this sympathetic and, for its time, culturally sensitive portrayal of Chinese culture is a moving, if complex, cinematic classic.
Madame Bovary (1991)
There have been numerous adaptations of Flaubert's novel, but Claude Chabrol's coldly bitter film to my mind best captures the stringent realism of the book. Isabelle Huppert stars as Emma Bovary, profoundly bored in her marriage to Charles (Jean-Francois Balmer) and convinced that adulterous love such as she has read about in novels is the only escape to the world she fancies as the realm of "real" experience. Each shot is beautifully composed, reminiscent of the paintings of Manet.
Marie Antoinette (1938)
Norma Shearer, in one of her best performances, stars as the ill-starred French queen opposite Robert Morley as the clock-obsessed King Louis XVI. This lavish costume drama is surprisingly historically accurate and subtly tracks the development of the relationship between the two monarchs, from its inauspicious wedding night disaster to their ultimate support and affection for each other in the midst of the revolution. The supporting cast includes John Barrymore, Tyrone Power, and Joseph Schildkraut.
The Piano (1993)
Holly Hunter stars as a mute woman married by proxy to a rough New Zealand settler (Sam Neill). Bringing with her her illegitimate daughter (Anna Paquin) and her piano, she rebels almost immediately when her new husband refuses to transport the instrument to the house, instead selling it to a fellow settler (Harvey Keitel), who has adopted Maori customs. Writer-director Jane Campion's masterpiece, The Piano is one of the greatest feminist films of all time.