So you’ve already seen Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth and the Keira Knightley versions). And the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina. And Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowsa and Michael Fassbender. You’ve also watched at least one adaptation of every Jane Austen novel. Maybe you’ve even seen North and South. And of course you watch Downton Abbey faithfully. Now you’re searching for the next period drama to binge-watch.
Allow me to be your guide through the world of costume drama. One of my hobbies is watching every single period drama in existence. I’ve made my way through Keira Knightley’s filmography, binged on the many adaptations of the novels of Jane Austen (even the forgotten ones from the ‘80s), consumed original miniseries, and viewed many a historical drama or adaptation of a 19th century novel.
And so, I present to you some very under-viewed but still amazing period dramas, in no particular order. You should add to them all to your must watch list. And of course, read the books too, if they’re based on a book.
1. The Crimson Field
This TV drama about a field hospital in France during World War I was cancelled too soon after only one season, but it is a must watch. There is intense chemistry between Kitty Trevelyan (Oona Chaplin), a new volunteer nurse with a bad attitude and a past, and Captain Thomas Gillan (Richard Rankin), a surgeon who’s as serious as they come. Richard Rankin is very very very handsome. There are some unique storylines, from closeted gay characters to a German love interest. And there are many patients with poignant guest arcs, including a cameo by Rupert Graves. Don’t miss Suranne Jones as Sister Joan Livesy, a badass trousers-wearing, motorcycle-riding nurse that all the female characters aspire to be.
2. Land Girls
The TV series Land Girls is about the Women’s Land Army in England during World War II (they worked as farmers to produce much-needed food while the men were away). All the Land Girls have compelling storylines, from unplanned babies to bad marriages to affairs with aristocrats. By the end of the first season you will have a strong urge to copy all their fabulous headscarf hairstyles. One of my favorite storylines is in series two, when Connie, a Land Girl and self-proclaimed jezebel, sets her sights on Henry, only to find out he’s the local reverend.
3. London Hospital
The series London Hospital (called Casualty 1900s across the pond) depicts the daily grind of running the title hospital. And, to thrill your inner historian, every character and case is taken directly from the actual records of the real life London Hospital. One of the most compelling storylines involves Nurse Ada Russell, who must decide whether to take a promotion or marry her coworker Doctor James Walton (Nurses at the London were not allowed to get married). There’s also Nurse Ethel Bennett (played by the immensely likeable Charity Wakefield), who aspires to be a doctor.
4. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1998 and 2008)
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is one of my favorite books. Tess is a fallen woman who is trying to better herself despite hardship, but she never escapes the weight of society’s judgment and men’s cruelty. It will make you very sad. It will punch you in the heart. It will make you cry your face off at all the injustice. When I first read it, then ending stayed with me for weeks. The 2008 miniseries with Gemma Arterton (Tess Durbeyfield) and Eddie Redmayne (Angel Clare) is definitely the most beautiful, and packs the biggest emotional punch. The cinematography is beautiful. However, I expected a little more from Eddie Redmayne. But he is still very cute. The 1998 movie is also good, and has a much better Angel Clare.
George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is another one that will make you cry and contemplate morals. The 1997 movie and the 1978 miniseries are both good. You will be crying consistently for the last 30 or so minutes of either. The story follows Maggie Tulliver, a wild child who grows up emotionally deprived and becomes a reserved but compelling woman. It’s tough to choose whether Philip or Stephen is right for Maggie: you’ll be mulling it over long after the credits roll.
6. Great Expectations (2011 and 2012)
There are two recent adaptations of Great Expectations that were made back-to-back: a miniseries in 2011, and a film in 2012. This thrilling and macabre mystery is my favorite Charles Dickens book. The protagonist is Pip, a poor young boy whose life is changed forever when he is given a fortune (his great expectations) from an anonymous benefactor. Neither adaptation has a good Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson is just not right for the part in the 2011 miniseries, and as for the 2012 film, well, I just don’t get what’s so great about Helena Bonham Carter). In the 2012 film, Ralph Fiennes is amazing as Magwitch. But both versions will tug at your heartstrings.
This is not the musical. It’s an adaptation of the novel by Victor Hugo that was around long before the 2012 musical adaptation came out. It’s a much better adaptation of the source material. This portrait of 19th century France follows student revolutionaries and lower class workers as they converge around the Paris Uprising of 1832. If you’re a fan of the musical, you’ll find that Jean Valjean and Cosette are much more fleshed out in this movie. And Liam Neeson is a very good Valjean. However, Éponine is not in the movie at all, so that sucks.
8. Miss Julie
August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie contains one of the most intense battles of the sexes in classic literature. The combatants are Julie (Jessica Chastain), a lonely, obnoxious rich girl, and Jean (Colin Farrell), her father’s alluring servant. Jessica Chastain who was born to play this role. The balance of power switches back and forth so much in the course of the film that it makes you dizzy.
9. Gone With the Wind
This is a classic, but you might not have seen it because it’s four hours long. Believe me, it's worth it. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in this tale of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Both sling insults like pros, including the Gable’s famous line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” They’re both such awful people that they deserve each other.
10. Jamaica Inn (1939 and 2015)
Jamaica Inn is by Daphne DuMaurier (the author of the infamous Rebecca), and it’s quite the thriller. The 2015 miniseries with Jessica Brown Findlay (Mary Yellen) and Matthew McNulty (Jem Merlyn) is gripping. It takes place in stormy, perpetually gray Cornwall, where Mary Yellen has just showed up at the doorstep of her aunt and uncle, who are her last living relations after her mother’s recent passing. But they’re tied up in some bad business, and soon she is drawn into it and everything she thought she knew about right and wrong goes down the drain. Also worthy is the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film, which he made before his masterful adaptation of Rebecca. The two adaptations are very different.
The work of Freud is attractive source material for period dramas, but this little-known foreign film takes the cake. It’s a hilarious sex comedy mystery featuring forbidden romance between a brother and sister-in-law. Also, the sister-in-law is nine months pregnant.
12. Anne of Green Gables
Anne is one of the great headstrong, stubborn teenagers of classic literature. She’s an orphan who is accidentally sent to live with an austere brother and sister on Prince Edward Island. But she soon grows on them. She also attracts the attention of the very charming Gilbert Blythe.
13. A Little Princess
This movie will definitely make you cry. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Edwardian children’s novel, the story follows Sara Crewe, an imaginative girl who grows up in India but must go to boarding school when her father goes off to war. But when her father is reported dead, she can no longer afford to live there and is instead treated like a servant by the horrible headmistress Miss Minchin. But her imagination, a new friendship with Becky, a Black scullery maid, help her to cope. There’s also a very thrilling climax. This movie is beautifully directed by Alfonso Cuarón and the song “Kindle My Heart” will make you weep.
14. Washington Square
Everyone in this adaptation of Henry James’ short novel has an intense inner life: it’s hard to know what any of them are thinking. It seems like mousey, awkward Catherine Sloper will never find a husband, so when a suitor named Morris Townsend shows interest, Catherine clings to him, while her father assumes his intentions aren’t good. But her father is no saint, either.
15. Lost in Austen
It’s an irresistible conceit: while rereading Pride and Prejudice, Amanda, a modern day Austenite from London, enters a secret door in her flat and accidently switches worlds with Elizabeth Bennet. Now she has to try to blend in, all while trying not to mess of the perfect ending of Pride and Prejudice, despite the fact that Elizabeth Bennet is missing. Not to mention there are sparks flying between Amanda and Mr. Darcy. One of my favorite parts is how the film approaches sexuality, both that of Amanda and the Regency-era characters. Elliot Cowan is also a pretty great Mr. Darcy.
Header image: Miss Julie
This post was published on January 6, 2016
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Madeline Raynor is a New York City-based writer. She is a Blog Editor at BUST. She has written for Splitsider, The Billfold, Death and Taxes, Mashable, Indiewire, and Time Out New York. She loves all things Tina Fey. Word to the wise: her first name is pronounced with a long “i,” like the red-haired girl from France. Follow her on Twitter @madelineraynor_.