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10 Great Costume Dramas

Rhias' rainy day favorites

There aren't many things that I like more than spending a rainy November afternoon with a gorgeous costume drama. There's just something about the gray skies that makes me crave layers of velvet and lace. This month, I've chosen ten of my favorites, not only are they easy on the eyes but they've got great stories to tell. Make yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate and join me for a month of nostalgia and romance.

Age of Innocence
Martin Scorcese knows how to make a gorgeous movie, and Age of Innocence is one of his most beautiful. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, turn in perfectly underplayed performances in this graceful drama based on the Edith Wharton novel. This captivating film tells the story of a young lawyer, who after becoming engaged to a charming socialite (Ryder), falls in love with her older, more worldly, cousin (Pfeiffer) and is forced to choose between a future of comfort and respectability, or a life with the woman he truly loves.  

Angels and Insects
This film, about a naturalist who marries into an aristocratic family is a sumptuous visual feast, as well as a disturbing tale of what can lie behind the mask of Victorian respectability.  The costumes in this film are spectacular. The intricate designs by Paul Brown perfectly serves the story without overpowering or detracting from it. I love the way that the gowns seem like the gilded exoskeletons of exotic beetles.

Dangerous Liaisons
This is one of my favorite movies (and a terrible influence on me during my misspent  youth).  Based on the play by Christopher Hampton, this perfectly vicious film tells the story of two French aristocrats engaged in a private war of sexual conquest. John Malkovich is terrifyingly attractive as the reptilian Vicomte de Valmont, and Glenn Close’s performance as the calculating ice-queen Marquise de Merteull is one of the finest performance ever captured on film. I cannot overstate the excellence of this movie - if you have not seen it, you need to. If you have seen it before, you should see it again.

You simply can’t have a costume drama section without Queen Elizabeth. This film tells of her transformation from naive young girl into the most powerful woman of her era. Cate Blanchett’s nuanced performance earned her an Oscar nomination, but the film was also nominated for best picture, art direction, cinematography, and costume design.  This is a movie which I could go on about for ages. I’ll spare you my babbling and just say that the scene where she debuts her new look is one of the most powerful reveals I have ever seen.

The Lion in Winter
This 1968 film stars Peter O’toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, it is worth watching for that reason alone, but what really makes it great is the witty script by James Goldman (adapted from his stage play).  The Lion In Winter takes place over a Christmas holiday in which King Henry II and his family gather to celebrate. Henry has yet to name an heir, and over the course of the holiday every family member schemes to seize the throne.  This is a great movie filled with great performances by great actors, it is by turns funny, sad, scary and thought provoking. It is also really fun to watch.

The Madness of King George
When King George III begins to slip into dementia his advisors do everything within their power to preserve the status quo and advance their own political agenda. I really enjoy this film, but with a cast headed up by Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren and Ian Holm it would be hard not to. Not only does this film give the viewer a fascinating (if not entirely accurate) look at a real life historical event, but it manages to be completely engaging and entertaining.

Virginia Woolfe’s century spanning story of an androgynous immortal is brought to life  in this epic drama of love, longing, and history. Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as Orlando, the young nobleman who is given the gift of immortality and embarks on a uniquely beautiful philosophical journey. Sally Potter directs this richly visualized, deeply moving drama about a strange soul who transcends the limitations of life and gender. This is a great film for a quiet afternoon. I love watching it on a rainy Sunday.

Queen Margot
Unlike many costume dramas, which tend to view the world through rose colored glasses, Queen Margot depicts palace life as a hotbed of violence and lust.  Taking place in 1572, during a conflict between Catholic and Protestant forces this film pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the violence of warfare, or the gothic decadence of its era. Fans of HBO’s The Borgia’s will enjoy this sublimely dark portrait of moral bankruptcy and political decay.

Nobody is going to claim that the Marquis De Sade doesn’t get enough screen time. He has appeared as a character in everything from hardcore porn to z-grade horror, but he has seldom been portrayed quite as well as by Geoffrey Rush in Quills. Rush’s complex interpretation of DeSade as a graphophiliac genius/madman is a joy to watch, especially when he is butting heads with Michael Caine as the doctor determined to cure (or possibly kill) him.  Quills is a movie that raises important questions about the perils of using censorship as a means of policing morality.

The Scarlet Empress
Joseph Von Sternberg directed the hell out of this movie! You can see his genius in every frame, but it is especially evident whenever Marlene Dietrich is on camera.  Von Sternberg transforms her from living actress to unforgettable luminous beauty, even he texture of the film stock is an intimite part of this movie, just like the brush strokes in an oil painting. The movie stars Dietrich as the naive Princess Sophia. She is imported to Russia in hopes of improving the royal bloodline via a marriage to the Empress’ idiot son Grand Duke Peter. Although she despises her mentally unstable husband, she learns to love Russia and goes on to become one of that nations most beloved leaders. The sets alone make it worth a look - but it has a million other things going for it too.

I am reminded that this is a Ten Great section, and not a Twelve Great section, this month I am adding two honorable mentions which can be found elsewhere in the store.
Impromptu (located in British Comedy) This film isn't historically accurate, but it is otherwise perfect. It contains some of my favorite dialogue, and is generally a great time.
Wilde (located in the literature room in Oscars section) Stephen Fry is perfectly cast as Oscar Wilde, with Jude Law as Lord Alfred Douglas. Sublime!

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