There has been a resurgence in period dramas in the last few years as historical films play an influential role in shaping our knowledge of the past. The genre has experienced a significant renaissance in recent years, with female directors and diverse narratives reaching the forefront.
Costume dramas not only provide a much-needed form of escapism in modern times, offering endless hours of dreaming and distraction but offer a nostalgic view of how different (and romantic) things used to be. Here’s our roundup of the best television and film dramas set in bygone eras.
1. Pride & Prejudice
Based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride & Prejudice is a 2005 romantic drama directed by Joe Wright featuring five sisters from an upper-crust English family as they tackle matters of marriage, morality and misconceptions. Keira Knightley stars in the titular role of Elizabeth Bennet, while Matthew Macfadyen plays her love interest, Mr Darcy. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film is a glorious adaptation filled with romance, satire, and deep emotions.
2. Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette (2006) is a historical drama film written and directed by Sofia Coppola and is based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001), starring Kristen Dunst as the Queen of Fashion. An 18th-century rendition of a chick flick, the pastel-drenched movie retells the story of the iconic but ill-fated Austrian-French Queen and her rise from a teenage bride to a young ruler. The film humanizes the myth of the last Queen of France and offers sweet, sweet serendipity. From her larger than life, opulent lifestyle to her candy coloured gowns, the unconventional costume drama is a feast for the eyes.
3. Downton Abbey
The Emmy-Award-winning show follows the aristocratic Crawley family, their servants, and the changing landscape of the social hierarchy in early 20th-Century England. Throughout the series, you experience altering family dynamics juxtaposed with real-life historical events like the sinking of The Titanic, the First World War and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The show has an extensive cast of talented actors, including Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Dan Stevens, Elizabeth McGovern, etc.
4. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Gilmore Girl creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s delightful Amazon series, set in 1958 New York, follows Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a housewife on the Upper West Side who learns she has a talent for stand-up comedy after her husband decides to leave her. The series tracks the ups and downs of Midge’s foray into the typically male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. From the full-on ’50s fashion to the spectacular sets and snappy one-liners, every detail in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is carefully considered and is nothing short of marvelous.
5. The Crown
A behind-the-scenes look at the British royal family, this grand Netflix-original drama recounts the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to the present day, following the political and personal events that have shaped her reign. Written by Peter Morgan, The Crown stars Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth, Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and Tobias Menzies as The Duke of Edinburgh. The award-winning series is set to return for season 5 soon, focusing on the John Major government years, the turmoil of Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage breakdown, and Diana’s tragic death in 1997.
6. The Tudors
The steamiest show on this list, The Tudors, depicts the tumultuous reign of one of Britain’s most polarizing figures, King Henry VIII. Each season focuses on a different facet of the ruler’s life, his feud with the pope, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the reformation and more. Starring a youthful and seductive Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry, Henry Cavill as his eye-candy advisor and best friend Charles Brandon and the gorgeous Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, this Showtime epic will be your new addiction.
7. Magnificent Century
A Turkish masterpiece, this historical drama is based on the life, court and harem of the Ottoman Empire during the 1500s. The show follows the sovereignty of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Sultan in Ottoman history, alongside his powerhouse wife and empress, Hurrem Sultan. Delightfully elaborate costumes, brilliant cinematography, the pursuit of vengeance and the iconic love story of Hurrem and Suleiman will captivate your senses. Love, lust, drama, and treason – this show has it all.
8. The Great
The Great is a delicious satirical comedy-drama about the rise of Catherine the Great from foreigner to the longest-reigning female monarch in Russia’s history. The fictionalized series portrays Catherine in her youth and marriage to Emperor Peter III, focusing on her plot to kill her corrupt and destructive husband. With terrific performances by Elle Fanning and Nicholas Holt, The Great tells a different story than the history books do of Catherine The Great. Light-hearted and witty, this Hulu original is a high-energy costume drama with a pop twist.
Based on Julia Quinn’s historical romance novels, Bridgerton is a period dramedy created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix. Engrossed with poetic grandeur, the show follows the adventures of the Bridgerton family, with each season surrounding the romance of one of the family’s eight children. The series is set in dreamy Regency-era London with drama, scandal and glamour galore (The second season of the period drama has overtaken season one’s success to become the most-watched English-language series to ever debut on Netflix!) Bridgerton offers a fresh take on traditional costume dramas with its racially diverse cast and powerful female characters. Get ready to swoon.
Set in 18th century London, Harlots centres on a group of madams and sex workers who find freedom in their work, catering to wealthy clients. Harlots has a magnificent cast, complex plots involving clever backstabbing on a large scale, strong-willed female characters and a lot of sex. Inspired by The Covent Garden Ladies by British historian Hallie Rubenhold, the series focuses on Margaret Wells, a brothel owner who struggles to secure a better future for her daughters while battling a cruel rival madam.