8 Best British Period Pieces Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

With Howards End, the magic trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala converted yet another turn-of-the-19th-century EM Forster novel into exquisite cinematic form. Ravishingly shot and performed to career-best heights by many of its cast, Howards End loses nothing of the elegance we expect from a period drama, and yet it also feels thoroughly modern. The film charts the tragic entwining of three families: the progressive and intellectual middle-class Schlegel sisters, the much more traditionally minded and wealthier Wilcox family, and the Basts, a down-on-their-luck working-class couple. It’s the liberally minded Schlegels who cross the class divide of 1910 London to bring these two distant social circles so close to each other, but it’s the old-world values of the Wilcoxes that make that meeting a tragic one. Simmering with rich emotion and crackling with class politics, Howards End is the crowning glory of the Merchant Ivory powerhouse and the rare perfect period drama.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Ross Magenty, Allie Byrne, Anne Lambton, Anthony Hopkins, Barbara Hicks, Brian Lipson, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Gerald Paris, Helena Bonham Carter, James Ivory, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Jo Kendall, Joseph Bennett, Margery Mason, Mark Payton, Mark Tandy, Mary McWilliams, Nicola Duffett, Patricia Lawrence, Peter Cellier, Prunella Scales, Sally Geoghegan, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Susie Lindeman, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

The visceral pain at the center of this adaptation from period drama powerhouse Merchant-Ivory comes not from fading or unrequited love but unrealized affection. Try as he might to repress his feelings, devoted butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) can’t stifle the blossoming attachment he shares with housemaid Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). And yet, at every opportunity she gives him to do something about it, he balks, squandering the potential for something truly beautiful — something that actually belongs to them, not their aristocratic employer.

The Remains is partly told in flashbacks to the period leading up to the Second World War. From his stately home, Stevens’ master Lord Darlington and his peers play at international relations and try to avoid another war by pandering to the Nazis, but find they’re woefully under-equipped to decide the fate of Europe in this changing world. One of the many brilliant things about The Remains is the way this political drama doubles the devastation of Stevens’ die-hard commitment to his job — because now, he’s sacrificing his one chance at love for something that won’t even survive the decade. Sublime filmmaking and performances turn Stevens’ every minute choice into a pillar of profound tragedy, giving us a maddeningly heartwrenching life lesson for the ages.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anthony Hopkins, Ben Chaplin, Brigitte Kahn, Caroline Hunt, Christopher Brown, Christopher Reeve, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Ian Redford, James Fox, Jeffry Wickham, Jo Kendall, John Haycraft, John Savident, Lena Headey, Michael Lonsdale, Miles Richardson, Patrick Godfrey, Paul Copley, Paula Jacobs, Peter Cellier, Peter Eyre, Peter Halliday, Peter Vaughan, Pip Torrens, Rupert Vansittart, Steven Beard, Terence Bayler, Tim Pigott-Smith, Tony Aitken, Wolf Kahler

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

Gosford Park inspired screenwriter Julian Fellowes to create Downton Abbey — but don’t let that association fool you, because this is no quaint, sentimental period drama but a scalding satire of 1930s England class relations (even though Maggie Smith does play a withering dowager countess here, too). Robert Altman, master orchestrator of ensembles, assembled a banquet of performers here, including Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Charles Dance as the well-to-do attendees of a hunting party on a grand estate. Working furiously to meet their every whim is the house’s domestic staff, played by such talents as Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kelly Macdonald, and Clive Owen.

The murder comes over an hour into the film, which ought to tell you about its real focus (Altman actually called Gosford Park a “who cares whodunnit”). In place of Agatha Christie-style intrigue is brilliant characterization and storytelling. Even at 137 minutes, 30-plus characters mean time is of the essence, but Altman and his actors miraculously find a way to convey a deep sense of each person — especially those downstairs. This tangle of rich lives never gets overwhelming, though, because Gosford Park is expertly paced. It’s nothing less than a joy to sit back and experience the masterful unraveling of its many threads, each more revelatory than the last.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Bates, Bob Balaban, Camilla Rutherford, Charles Dance, Claudie Blakley, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Emily Watson, Emma Buckley, Finty Williams, Frances Low, Frank Thornton, Geraldine Somerville, Gregor Henderson-Begg, Helen Mirren, James Wilby, Jeremy Northam, Jeremy Swift, Joanna Maude, John Atterbury, Kelly Macdonald, Kristin Scott Thomas, Laura Harling, Laurence Fox, Leo Bill, Lucy Cohu, Maggie Smith, Meg Wynn Owen, Michael Gambon, Natalie Danks-Smith, Natasha Wightman, Richard E. Grant, Ron Webster, Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Flind, Sophie Thompson, Stephen Fry, Teresa Churcher, Tom Hollander, Trent Ford

Director: Robert Altman

Rating: R

Florence Pugh broke through with her powerhouse performance here as Katherine, a young woman who is “sold” into a coldly transactional marriage with a cruel and impotent merchant in 1800s Northern England. Lady Macbeth seems to begin as one thing — a gloomy period tale of oppression and feminist rebellion — but, on the strength of Pugh’s performance, pivots into an even bleaker subversion of that initial impression, the kind we haven’t really seen before.

When her disinterested husband takes a long leave of absence to tend to some business affairs, Katherine does more than just defy his command that she stay indoors: she begins an unabashed affair with one of her husband’s gruff groomsmen (Cosmo Jarvis), who ignites in her an obsessive passion that brings out her dark side. She’ll stop at nothing to remove any obstacles in the couple’s way — but, while her initial targets are arguably quite deserving of their fate, her scheme soon implicates the innocent. The creeping revelation that all the cruelty Katherine has been subjected to has brutalized her in turn comes as a shock, but this dramatic overturning of our expectations is made chillingly real by Pugh’s fierce, unfaltering performance.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Bill Fellows, Christopher Fairbank, Cliff Burnett, Cosmo Jarvis, David Kirkbride, Finn Burridge, Florence Pugh, Golda Rosheuvel, Ian Conningham, Kema Sikazwe, Naomi Ackie, Nicholas Lumley, Paul Hilton, Rebecca Manley

Director: William Oldroyd

Rating: R

2005 was a banner year for British period dramas, apparently: first, there was Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (still arguably the genre’s crowning achievement), and then came Under the Greenwood Tree, a delightful made-for-Christmas-TV romance loosely based on the eponymous Thomas Hardy novel. Anyone familiar with the author’s typically tragedy-tinged stories — think Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd — will find themselves surprised by the light, pleasant tone of this one, in which the closest anyone gets to violent revenge is sabotaging a church organ by pouring a flagon of cider into it.

The romance here is threefold: when Keeley Hawes’ spinster schoolteacher Fancy Day (genuinely her name) arrives in an English village, she ignites a rivalry between wealthy farmer Shiner (Steve Pemberton), haughty clergyman Parson Maybold (Ben Miles), and James Murray’s die-hard romantic Dick Dewy (again: the names in this are a choice). The trio’s simultaneous attempted courting of Fancy doubles as both the entertaining will-she-won’t-she stuff of romantic dramas and a conduit through which the movie explores the class dynamics in England during the 19th century. It’s this deft intertwining of satisfying romantic period drama tropes with genuine reflection on the historical period itself — all while remaining lighthearted — that makes this underseen adaptation worth watching.

Genre: Drama, Romance, TV Movie

Actor: Ben Miles, James Murray, Keeley Hawes, Richard Leaf, Steve Pemberton, Terry Mortimer, Tom Georgeson, Tony Haygarth

Director: Nicholas Laughland

, 2022

Of the three Brontë sisters—all of whom are accomplished writers in their own right—it’s Emily who remains the most enigmatic to this day. She died early and left in her wake just one work: her first and only novel, Wuthering Heights. The book shook England back then; it was rugged and sexual and violent, and the film honors that by filling the gaps in our knowledge of Brontë’s life with the excitement of her work. Emily, the film, may be historically inaccurate, but it is wildly enjoyable, even if it is pure fantasy. The cinematography is sensual and the sound production screeching; the vibe is equal parts erotic and eerie as Emily loses herself in the mysticism of the moors. It seems apt that a film about Emily leans more toward arthouse than commercial, but it’s also impressive that director Frances O'Connor is able to achieve all this while maintaining a universally romantic appeal about it.

Genre: Drama, History, Romance

Actor: Adrian Dunbar, Alexandra Dowling, Amelia Gething, Emma Mackey, Fionn Whitehead, Gemma Jones, Gerald Lepkowski, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Paul Warriner, Philip Desmeules, Sacha Parkinson, Veronica Roberts

Director: Frances O'Connor

Rating: R

A sleek revision of the classic Charlotte Brontë novel, the 2011 version of Jane Eyre features Mia Wasikowska as the titular governess and Michael Fassbender as her employer-and-lover-with-a-secret, Rochester — both lending stunningly aggrieved performances to the tale of their burgeoning love affair. The film is somber yet wonderfully polished as it plays out their individual complexities and growing passions. This film is also notable as the sophomore directorial effort of Cary Fukunaga, who would go on to great acclaim for his work on the first season of True Detective as well as Beasts of No Nation. Fans of Fukunaga’s work are just a likely to enjoy this one as are devotees of well-crated adaptations of classic literature.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Amelia Clarkson, Angela Curran, Ben Roberts, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Craig Roberts, Edwina Elek, Eglantine Rembauville-Nicolle, Emily Haigh, Ewart James Walters, Freya Parks, Freya Wilson, Georgia Bourke, Harry Lloyd, Holliday Grainger, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Jayne Wisener, Joe Van Moyland, Joseph Kloska, Judi Dench, Lizzie Hopley, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Ned Dennehy, Romy Settbon Moore, Rosie Cavaliero, Sally Hawkins, Sally Reeve, Sandy McDade, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Su Eliott, Su Elliot, Su Elliott, Tamzin Merchant, Valentina Cervi

Director: Cary Fukunaga, Cary Joji Fukunaga

Rating: PG-13