10 Recommended Period Dramas, and a new episode of FITI: THE FILM PODCAST

I was thrilled to be able to speak to Hillary Titley for the most recent episode of FLAW IN THE IRIS: THE FILM PODCAST. She’s a filmmaker and film writer, and was a frequent guest on my radio show, THE LOVE & HATE MOVIE SHOW on CKDU, 88.1 FM, that ran from 2005 to 2009.

On the podcast, she offered a list of five of her favourite corset dramas, and as such has inspired me to offer a few of my own. I couldn’t keep it only at five—so here are 10, in alphabetical order, but I’m going to stick to Hillary’s genre requirements of films featuring women in restrictive undergarments. (No westerns and no colonial adventures.)

Bright Star (2009)

As I mentioned in the conversation with Hillary, Bright Star was my favourite film of 2009. It was a rough year for me, and I think the combination of what I brought to it, Campion’s film’s deep sincerity and charm, as well as a real cinematic beauty, that won me over.

Coco Avant Chanel (2009)

This film makes my list for how it gorgeously describes the end of the era of corsets, and the freedom and liberation prescribed by the little black dress.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

The film secured stardom for John Malkovich and helped introduce Uma Thurman to the world. It’s a parade of nastiness, remade as the fun Cruel Intentions, but the original set in pre-revolutionary France is still the champion. I recall seeing the play onstage in London with its alternative ending, where the Glenn Close character never gets her comeuppance. Instead there’s an ambiguous comment about how things never really change, directly referencing history that was about to prove them wrong. I liked it, but I’m not sure that would have worked as well on screen.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

Based on the John Fowles novel, the film does something well I haven’t seen very often. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play dual roles in a film within a film. There’s the Victorian story of a woman living in a small town in Dorset, the town pariah due to rumours of an affair with a married Frenchman who was visiting. She now spends her time standing out on the pier staring into the sea, anticipating his return. Irons plays a botanist who crosses paths with her repeatedly, all while he’s busily engaged to the daughter of an industrialist. We spend fully 75% of the time in the film within the film, while occasionally checking in on Streep and Irons playing actors playing the scientist and woman scorned—they’re having an affair while they’re on set. Sophisticated and postmodern. 

Gosford Park (2001)

Robert Altman and Julian Fellowes’ film is worth seeing simply for the achievement of telling a coherent story with so many characters. Any fan of Downton Abbey should see this as it’s a direct precursor in Fellowes work.

Howard’s End (1992)

James Ivory has been directing features since the early 1960s, but his work peaked in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s with his collaboration is producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The Merchant Ivory brand was huge and delivered a host of terrific films. This adaptation of an EM Forster novel followed their very popular A Room With A View, but this time it’s much more a drama than a comedy, exploring a connection between three families, and between classes. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful.

Impromptu (1991)

An undeservedly forgotten comedy drama about the popular French writer George Sand, a woman who  preferred to wear men’s clothing in 1830s Paris. At its best it’s a portrait of the hedonist lifestyle of the artists of the day, including Chopin and Liszt. Great fun, with terrific performances from Judy Davis as Sand, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson, Julian Sands, and Hugh Grant. I’ve written about it before here.

Queen Margot (1994)

While many period dramas are bloodless affairs, this one has blood sweating out of its pores. Set in the late 16th century it tells of the battle between Protestants and Catholics for control of France, and features one of Isabelle Adjani’s best performances. Now available on 4K blu-ray in a 20th Anniversary cut.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Ang Lee delivers this highlight from the collection of late-90’s Jane Austen adaptations, starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman. It’s a total delight, much more dynamic and less stuffy than many of the films in this genre.

Wings of the Dove (1997)

It has the Brits-In-Love-In-Italy vibe of A Room With A View, but with a more complex, tragic story, from the Henry James novel. Starring Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliot.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.