There are no hard and fast rules as to how a film had to be set in the past for it to be called a period piece; technically, something set in the early 2000s might qualify. But thanks in part to all the Jane Austen adaptations and films about long-dead monarchs, the phrase period piece often evokes pompous gowns and elaborate estates—or at least a story set before many viewers were born. Here are 10 top-notch options to consider the next time you want to watch a period drama that may or may not involve fancy hats.
Merchant Ivory Productions’ Room with a viewThe film, based on E.M. Forster’s 1908 coming-of-age novel, became a star vehicle for two now household names: Helena Bonham Carter and Daniel Day-Lewis. The film also contains a Forster Easter egg: the gossip that Eleanor Lavish (Dame Judi Dench) shares with Charlotte Bartlett (Dame Maggie Smith) during their picnic echoes the plot of Forster’s novel. Where angels fear to tread. Bonham Carter also starred in the 1991 film adaptation of the book.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel depicts 1870s New York in all its Gilded Age glory. But one advertising image printed in Us The magazine looked a little more modern, with Michelle Pfeiffer passionately hugging Daniel Day-Lewis while casually clutching a roll of Certs mints. “Oops!” said then-Columbia Pictures executive Sidney Ganis.
Elizabeth, director Shekhar Kapur’s first English-language feature film, chronicles the early years of Queen Elizabeth I on the throne. Cate Blanchett received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her role as the Ruler, but lost to Gwyneth Paltrow for her role as the Ruler. Shakespeare in Love. Ironically, Judi Dench won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year for her portrayal of the much older Elizabeth I in… Shakespeare in Love.
Robert Altman was toying with the idea of making an Agatha Christie-style mystery film when his friend Bob Balaban suggested a screenwriter: Julian Fellowes, a real-life British lord who was still years away from making the film. Downton Abbey. Fellows accepted the offer, and Balaban co-produced (and starred in) what became one of the most entertaining depictions of 1930s British high society in film history. Despite the film’s huge cast, Altman did not allow the actors to come in for a few days to film only their scenes—everyone had to sign up for the entire 10 weeks.
Translate Ian McEwan’s romantic drama about World War II. Redemption On the screen, director Joe Wright broke the rules by casting Saoirse Ronan as the youngest version of Briony Tallis before casting two actors to play the character at an older age (Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave). During joint rehearsals, Garay and Redgrave tried to match Ronan’s mannerisms, and not vice versa.
Sir Steve McQueen was already thinking about making a film about a free black man sold into slavery when his wife suggested he read 12 years of slavery, Solomon Northup’s 1850s memoir, which does just that. Despite the gritty nature of the film – and McQueen’s desire not to “glamorize” the era – Lupita Nyong’o (who plays Patsy) described the set as “a very safe and sacred place.”
Beautiful based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a British naval officer and an enslaved African woman who grew up as a British aristocrat in the 18th century. The portrait that features Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her white half-sister Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) in the film is a recreation of the real-life portrait that inspired Misan Sagai to write and direct Amma. Asante to join the project.
Because director Pablo Larraín believes that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda “cannot be put into a box,” he instead developed an “anti-biography” that depicts Neruda’s (Luis Gnecco) escape from Chile in 1948, adding a fictional inspector who pursues him (played by Gael Garcia Bernal). To give the film a distinctly vintage feel, Larraín, who also directed Oscar-nominated biopics, Jackie (2016) and Spencer (2021) combines red and blue to create a faint violet filter.
Favorite tells (with artistic license) the historical rivalry between the two closest companions of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who ruled Great Britain from 1702 to 1714. To help the actors internalize the story’s comedy, director Yorgos Lanthimos peppered rehearsals with quirky tasks, such as trying to avoid collisions by walking backwards, and clasping their hands together to create what Rachel Weisz called a “human pretzel.”
Céline Sciamma’s gripping novel follows the illicit relationship between an 18th-century French artist (played by Noémie Merlant) and a young noblewoman (Adèle Haenel) whom she is commissioned to paint. Oil painter Hélène Delmer created almost all of the art in the film, working approximately three months of 16-hour days.