28 Best Period Pieces Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
How do you make a film about the Holocaust feel new? How do you make the terrors feel fresh, like it was just in the news, without sounding redundant or without giving into the sensationalized and emotionally manipulative? For Director Jonathan Glazer, the answer lies in not what you show but what you don’t show. The Zone of Interest is shot from the point of view of Nazi Officer Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), who live a dreamy life right next to the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Glazer frames them plainly and without flourish as they ignore (or, arguably, revel in) the glow of burning bodies, the howls of pain, and the billows of smoke coming from the torture chamber a wall away. It’s a powerful, nauseating contrast that turns the question from “How can they do this?” to “Who among us is committing the same things right now?” Who among us is casting a blind eye to the atrocities and genocide being committed at this very moment to our neighbors? The film, which is also a technical feat in terms of the way it’s shot (the crew and cameras remained hidden so that the actors were free to roam, as if in a play) is chilling and thought-provoking, and it will unnerve you for days on end.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Anastazja Drobniak, Christian Friedel, Daniel Holzberg, Freya Kreutzkam, Imogen Kogge, Jakub Sierenberg, Johann Karthaus, Klaudiusz Kaufmann, Lilli Falk, Luis Noah Witte, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Maximilian Beck, Medusa Knopf, Nele Ahrensmeier, Rainer Haustein, Ralph Herforth, Sandra Hüller, Sascha Maaz, Shenja Lacher, Thomas Neumann

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Rating: PG-13

The 2016 outing of South-Korean auteur director Park Chan-wook (maker of Oldboy and Stoker) once again shifts attention to the dark side of what makes us human: betrayal, violence, and transgression. Based on the 2002 novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden revolves around the love of two women and the greedy men around them. Park shifts the novel's plot from Victorian London to 1930s Korea, where an orphaned pickpocket is used by a con man to defraud an old Japanese woman. Routinely called a masterpiece with comparisons made to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, this is a stylish and meticulous psychological thriller that packs enough erotic tension to put a crack in your screen. If you love cinema, you can't miss this movie. You might even have to watch it twice.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Bae Il-hyuck, Cho Jin-woong, Choi Byung-mo, Choi Jong-ryul, Eun-hyung Jo, Ha Jung-woo, Ha Si-yeon, Hae-suk Kim, Han Ha-na, In-woo Kim, Jeong Ha-dam, Jeong In-kyeom, Jin-woong Jo, Jo Eun-Hyung, Jung In-gyeom, Jung-woo Ha, Kim Hae-sook, Kim Hae-suk, Kim In-woo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Si-eun, Kim Tae-ri, Kwak Eun-jin, Lee Dong-hwi, Lee Ji-ha, Lee Kyu-jung, Lee Yong-nyeo, Lim Han-bin, Min-hee Kim, Moon So-ri, O Man-seok, Oh Man-seok, Rina Takagi, So-ri Moon, Tae-ri Kim, Takashi Kakizawa, Tomomitsu Adachi

Director: Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Rating: Not Rated

, 2022

Inu-oh is a visually stunning and thought-provoking anime that reimagines a Japanese folk tale as it explores themes of artistic freedom, individuality, and the consequences of challenging societal norms. The movie's striking imagery, original music, and captivating story make it a memorable viewing experience, delving into issues of identity and the prejudices faced by disabled individuals with sensitivity. While the catchy music may not appeal to everyone, the film's unique blend of ancient and contemporary storytelling creates a creative triumph that anime fans will appreciate, offering social commentary and a reflection on the power of staying true to oneself.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Music

Actor: Avu-chan, Chikara Honda, Gota Ishida, Kenjiro Tsuda, Mirai Moriyama, Tasuku Emoto, Yutaka Matsushige

Director: Masaaki Yuasa

On the one hand, Godland is a film about nature’s unforgiving beauty. Like the photographs the priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) takes, these quietly superb scenes speak for themselves. The Earth moves in mysterious and harsh ways, and we are but mere specks, organic matter to be folded in and absorbed, in the grand scheme of things. It would’ve worked with just this message alone, but Godland also treads on political ground. Through Lucas, who is Danish, and his travel guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), who is Icelandic, we sense a palpable tension that electrifies the film with a colonial strain. There are layers to their deep aversion (and dependence) on one another, and director Hlynur Pálmason does well to pair this with imagery that is just complex, profound, and packed with meaning.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Elliott Crosset Hove, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Jacob Ulrik Lohmann, Vic Carmen Sonne, Waage Sandø

Director: Hlynur Palmason

Sisters Martine and Filippa, daughters of a founder of a religious sect, live a simple and quiet life in a remote coastal village in Denmark. Throughout the course of their lives, they reject possible romances and fame as part of their commitment to deny earthly attachments. This is upended by the sudden arrival of a French immigrant named Babette, who served as their house help to escape the civil war raging in her country.

Babette’s Feast is an inquiry into simplicity and kindness, and whether these would be sufficient to achieve a life of contentment. The religious undertones perfectly fit with the film’s parable-like structure, where bodily and spiritual appetites are satisfied through a sumptuous feast of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Asta Esper Hagen Andersen, Axel Strøbye, Bendt Rothe, Bibi Andersson, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Cay Kristiansen, Ebbe Rode, Else Petersen, Finn Nielsen, Gert Bastian, Ghita Nørby, Ghita Nørby, Holger Perfort, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Lars Lohmann, Lisbeth Movin, Pouel Kern, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Stéphane Audran, Stéphane Audran, Therese Hojgaard Christensen, Thomas Antoni, Vibeke Hastrup, Viggo Bentzon

Director: Gabriel Axel

Rating: G

This unique romance is set during a time when a man would be sent the painting of the woman he was to marry before the wedding could take place. Héloïse, secluded with her mother and a maid on a remote island, doesn't approve of her upcoming wedding and refuses to be painted. Her mother sends for a new painter, Marianne, to try to paint her without her noticing. Marianne has to take on this near-impossible task when she starts having feelings for Héloïse. This makes for a riveting romance where Marianne has to choose between her heart and her art while keeping a huge secret from her love interest.

Genre: Drama, History, Romance

Actor: Adèle Haenel, Adèle Haenel, Armande Boulanger, Christel Baras, Clément Bouyssou, Clément Bouyssou, Guy Delamarche, Luàna Bajrami, Luàna Bajrami, Michèle Clément, Noémie Merlant, Noémie Merlant, Valeria Golino

Director: Céline Sciamma, Céline Sciamma

Rating: R

, 2018

Director Zhang Yimou, who already has remarkable wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers under his belt, delivers another exceptional epic. Set during China's Three Kingdoms era (220–280 AD), Shadow revolves around a great king and his people, who are expelled from their homeland but will aspire to reclaim it. The story requires a fair amount of patience at first, as it slowly builds a world consisting of various characters with different motives, before the real action begins. The journey through Shadow is visually pleasing thanks to its stunning cinematography, impressively choreographed combat, and overall brilliant production design. Packed with sequences that will take your breath away, it is an inventive martial arts epic with one amazing scene after another.

Genre: Action, Drama

Actor: Chao Deng, Deng Chao, Feng Bai, Guan Xiaotong, Hu Jun, Leo Wu, Li Sun, Qianyuan Wang, Ryan Cheng, Ryan Zheng, Ryan Zheng Kai, Sun Li, Wang Jingchun, Wang Qian-Yuan, Wang Qianyuan, Zhang Yimou

Director: Yimou Zhang, Zhang Yimou

Rating: Not Rated

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

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are the only two actors starring in this eccentric movie, and they deliver such grand performances that it feels like another actor would have been one too many.

They star as lighthouse keepers in the 19th century, left on an island to interact only with each other and their rock. It's a fascinating premise of how these men, left on their own, deal with boredom, loneliness, and being annoyed with one another.

Incredible performances, an interesting aspect ratio, and perhaps excessive weirdness, make this movie unforgettable.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Jeff Cruts, Kyla Nicolle, Logan Hawkes, Pierre Richard, Preston Hudson, Robert Pattinson, Shaun Clarke, Valeriia Karamän, Valeriia Karamän, Valeriia Karaman, Willem Dafoe

Director: Robert Eggers

Rating: R

, 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