Still from The Age of Innocence.

7 of the best period pieces to watch right now

Trying times call for a strong dose of nostalgia, royal lesbian love triangles and Daniel Day-Lewis.

by Callan Malone
16 April 2020, 2:49pm

Still from The Age of Innocence.

It’s safe to say that thinking about the current state of the world brings comfort to no one. Thinking about the future may incite the same, if not, more anxiety. So, we’re offering an escape from everything present and future with a list of our favorite period pieces. We’re going to bring you to France in 1770, to New York in the 1870s and to England in the 1950s. Think big drama, bigger hair and lots of scandalous sex. The criteria for this list is by no means consistent. Historical accuracy is not always as scintillating as we hope it to be and Jason Scwartzman probably plays a funnier Louis VVI of France than the King himself. Some of these stories are fictitious, some we wish were fictitious, and most are the perfect balance of crude and whimsical. The chosen titles have also inadvertently become a bit of an homage to Daniel Day-Lewis, but given his proclivity to being a heartthrob regardless of what century he’s living in, we feel it is well deserved. Here are seven of the best period films to watch right now.

Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola’s dreamscape telling of the famed French heroine is the only film you’ll find in this list that’s set in the 18th century to the sound of New Order and Gang of Four. While the story itself may be known to many as that of the overly indulgent queen of France personally draining her country of its money, Coppola’s adaptation reads more as eye candy than economic collapse. It is one of the few productions in existence that was granted unadulterated access to the halls of Versailles and it’s clear no aesthetic expenses were spared. Kirsten Dunst surrounded by ten-tier towers of Ladurée macaroons while The Strokes blare over a montage of Manolo Blahniks is just the icing on a very pastel cake that is the modern masterpiece, Marie Antoinette.

The Favourite
Previously known for The Lobster and Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos has perfected making his viewers viscerally uncomfortable and yet wholly intrigued and wanting more. Servant Abigail, played by Emma Stone, climbs her way up the ladder of success and into the bed of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) despite the bed having already been claimed by Rachel Weisz’ Lady Sarah. As any royal lesbian love triangle goes, this one is marred by sex, deceipt, epidermal disease and duck racing. Abigail slamming a book into her face and then following it up by seducing a bed-ridden queen is as tragic and confusing as it is hot. Lest we forget Nicholas Hoult in a full face of makeup and some premature excitement from Joe Alwyn. If the film isn’t enough of a treat, watching Olivia Coleman give her acceptance speech for Best Actress at the Oscars most certainly is. We suggest following up the screening with the youtube clip of the 2019 Academy Awards.

Dangerous Liaisons
If you’ve seen Cruel Intentions, this plotline may sound familiar. If you haven’t, you’ve got two movies to add to your list. Dangerous Liaisons stars Glenn Close and John Malkovich as two conniving and downright cruel members of 18th century French royal court whose games and sexual escapades spare no one’s feelings. Based on the eponymous French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the film is one of the few period pieces set in Europe that does not ask its characters to sport a vaguely British accent for effect. No, John Malkovich is full throttle in his distinctively wafting voice as he toys with a young Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves in pursuit of his true conquest, the bible-thumping Madame de Tourvel, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. The pervasively American accents and Close’s overflowing bust teeter ever so closely to parody, but end up striking a perfect balance with the deeply sinister narrative.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
There’s as much intrigue on the periphery of this project as there is in the movie itself as director Céline Sciamma and lead actress Adèle Haenel were in a ten-year relationship leading up to production. The 1770 gothic tale revolves around the forbidden romance between painter Marianne and reluctant bride-to-be Héloïse, whose portrait must be painted in secret as she refuses to pose. Each scene feels like a slow motion dream as Marianne observes Héloïse closely attempting to paint her from memory. Walks along the windswept seaside of the Brittany island and nights by candlelight reading Greek mythology are laced with moments of operetic harmonies and allusions to witchcraft. We won’t spoil what happens next, but the film took home the César award for best cinematography and it definitely had something, if not everything, to do with the mirror scene. You’ll know it when you see it.

Phantom Thread
Daniel Day-Lewis strikes again and now we’re thoroughly convinced that time is on his side. Handsome as ever, he plays Reynolds Woodcock who, alongside his sister, is at the center of haute-couture fashion in 50s London. The verified bachelor whose day-to-day is as precise as his stitching has his world up-ended by Alma, a quiet, but strong-willed waitress. The two embark on a codependent relationship that is as inspiring as it is unnerving. It is no surprise that the movie about a dressmaker was awarded Best Costume Design at the Oscars, but it isn’t just the gowns that make Phantom Thread such a sensorial treat. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed the score which told a story of its own. Mixed in with some Debussy and Schubert, Greenwood’s eerie melodies blend with piercing chords always alluding, but never too strongly, to the volatile relationship that consumes Alma and Reynolds. The final scene will make you want to rewatch the film almost immediately so you can retrace your steps for any breadcrumbs that Paul Thomas Anderson might have left. It’s a major WTF.

A Room with a View
Despite her long-lived career of playing twisted and untamed vixens, Helena Bonham-Carter came from sweet, sweet beginnings playing Lucy Honeychurch in this adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 eponymous novel. It’s about a girl who travels to Florence with her aunt, where she meets an uncouth and unsophisticated George Emerson. At home in England, she is betrothed to an overly sophisticated and intensely obnoxious Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis). Starring alongside Maggie Smith, known to many as Professor McGonagall. (Yes, Bellatrix and Minerva are on the same side in this one), Ms. Honeychurch must decide between following her heart and her mother’s wishes.The costumes are not so swoon-worthy and the colors of the English countryside are muted, but with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi serving as the soundtrack and quite a bit of full frontal male nudity, A Room with a View is a tasteful glimpse of the pre-travel blog days of vacation romances.

The Age of Innocence
Generally speaking, we’d stay away from a movie that takes itself too seriously. In the case of The Age of Innocence, though, we welcome it. Martin Scorcese breaks from his mob dramas and his finance tycoons to take on Edith Wharton’s famed novel set in 1870s New York. Despite being a box office flop, we can’t say no to Daniel Day-Lewis (yes, again) as wealthy lawyer Newland Archer whose moral code is matched only by his witty charm. Betrothed to the respectable May Welland, played by a wee Winona Ryder, he finds himself falling in love with her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) whose divorce has left her outcast by the society members of New York’s elite circle. The interactions between Olenska and Archer are so overwrought with melodrama, it’s hard not to laugh and yet we love it all the same. Melodrama is sort of a cornerstone of the period piece; without the option for a passive aggressive text or a declaration of love over Instagram DM, it all has to happen in the parlor room of the aristocrat down the street. Beyond this and the love triangle, seeing New York pre-Central Park when houses in Manhattan stood alone amongst yards and fields is entirely surreal. Regardless of the film’s lack of commercial success compared to some of the aforementioned titles, The Age of Innocence is exemplary of the jewel-toned camp that makes period pieces so entertaining.

Marie Antoinette
period pieces
phantom thread
the favourite
watch list
portrait of a lady on fire
dangerous liaisons
a room with a view
the age of innocence