With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it’s the best time of the year to settle in not only with some cinematic romance, but with one of cinematic romance’s most beloved subgenres— the period romance. Dashing though Darcy and Heathcliff may be, they’ve had their day— it’s time to shift the focus to some lesser-loved but no less spectacular films.
Anna Karenina got a lot of love on the awards circuit, but not nearly enough popular acclaim. Adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel of duty and lust in imperial Russia, visionary director Joe Wright’s film follows the disastrous unraveling of the title character’s life as a result of the torrid affair that liberated her from her loveless marriage to magistrate Karenin (Jude Law). However, for that romance, Anna pays a steep price— estrangement from her beloved son, alienation from the society that scorns her, and the shutting of the world’s doors to her one by one. Anna Karenina is lush and erotic as well as stunningly and courageously stylized, and it is perhaps the best encapsulation of the sheer genius of the director who brought us such period romance juggernauts as Atonement and Pride & Prejudice.
Of the Romantic poets, it was John Keats who may arguably have led the most capital-R romantic life— plagued by poverty, starvation, and tuberculosis as all the best romantics were, Keats died at the tender age of twenty-five with naught but a heartbroken fiancée and volumes of breathtaking poetry left in his wake. In Bright Star, Ben Whishaw is a revelation as exactly the Keats readers of his poetry know and love— an indefatigable dreamer, a visionary, a bastion of stupendous talent and stupendous misery. Enter Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a pragmatic and talented seamstress far out of the reach of Keats’ negligible means, though not of his art and his affections. Rapturous, sensual, and wiltingly romantic, Bright Star is the tale of a doomed but nonetheless ardent love, one that lives on through letters and poetry that continue to fascinate the reading public.
The Painted Veil isn’t for the faint of heart or stomach. Unlike much of its period romance brethren, this is a film that slogs through the depths of colonialism, crushing poverty, and epidemic illness, though it does so with such sensual aplomb that it doesn’t prove too altogether disheartening. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this is the redemption story of Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), a selfish and spoiled society wife dragged to the rural epicenter of a Chinese cholera epidemic when her husband Walter (Edward Norton), a celebrated surgeon, threatens to expose her infidelities should she stay behind. The Painted Veil is just as much a tale of personal growth as of love, as it is in this adversity that Kitty blossoms— not only by belatedly falling in love with her husband, but by discovering her own capacity for charity, self-sacrifice, and a life lived in service of others. Sad, sumptuous, and rife with suffering, this film takes a poignant look into a corner of the world where the genre doesn’t often take us.
As was the case with Anna Karenina, goodwill towards Jane Eyre has tended to be relegated to the art film community, but this oversight is something of a cinematic crime. Cary Fukunaga’s take on this gothic tale of love and longing above one’s station is groundbreaking in its evocation of the one quality in Brontë’s original that every other director has overlooked: the eeriness. This is a world of shadows in the corridors, Sleepy Hollow-esque fog in the forest, things that go bump in the night, and Fukunaga’s adaptation is rife with all those spine-tingling touches. As the spirited governess Jane and the arrogant yet increasingly tender-hearted Mr. Rochester, Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender give remarkably restrained performances, and it is this definitive adaptation that perhaps best captures the fragile harmony of the classic tale’s spookiness and romance.
The ever-affable Hugh Dancy stars in Hysteria as Mortimer Granville, a debonair doctor with surprisingly few social graces who takes a job at a woman’s medicine clinic in treating women’s “hysteria” by getting to work between their legs— first with his hands, then later with the primitive vibrator that he perfects throughout the course of the film. Granville later encounters Charlotte Dalrymple, the daughter of the practice’s owner and a firecracker suffragette devoted to providing for the disadvantaged, impoverished women of industrial London. So begins a charmingly orchestrated dance between Granville’s often-dashed ambitions, his development of his groundbreaking prototype, and his clumsy wooing of Charlotte. Airy, lighthearted, and infectiously warm in the way that all the best romcoms are, Hysteria is a refreshingly unusual premise with witty dialogue and delightful performances from all involved.
Bel Ami is a rare entry into a genre so often dominated by female protagonists. Based on Guy de Maupassant’s celebrated novel by the same name, Robert Pattinson stars as Georges DuRoy, an enterprising yet penniless soldier seeking to make his fortune by capitalizing on the effect his charm and desirability have on uppercrust nineteenth-century Paris’ true movers and shakers— the wives of the powerful. However, the deeper Georges delves into this dizzying sexual vortex, the more dangerous his deceit proves, and the more uncontrollable his affections become. As a man increasingly ruined by his ambition and greed, Pattinson proves a more-than-capable leading man, and his lush, hush-hush journey into regency boudoirs makes for a refreshingly taboo romp.
The recurrence of period romance heavyweight Keira Knightley just can’t be helped— after all, she’s the contemporary queen of the genre. In The Duchess, she stars as Georgina Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana known for her lavish lifestyle and political activism— however, though Georgina may seem outwardly larger-than-life, she is in reality trapped in a loveless marriage to an authoritarian and adultering duke (Ralph Fiennes) who repeatedly punishes her for her inability to bear him a son. Though Georgina is almost universally adored by the public in this period of great decadence and political upheaval, her affair with her one true love, political firebrand Charles Gray, ultimately proves her undoing at the hands of her husband when her children are ripped from her arms. The Duchess is a tragic tale, one of a woman to whom society gave much and from whom it took everything, but it stands as a powerful and poignant reminder of the price that women of this time so often paid for true love.
Among the most celebrated powerhouse partnerships in the history of the British monarchy is that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, noted nineteenth-century champions of the arts, education, and industrialization. However, where Victoria is commonly envisioned as a jewel-bedecked matron on a postage stamp, The Young Victoria finds her as a fresh-faced sovereign (Emily Blunt) pushed and pulled by the corrupted forces of British parliament amidst a constitutional crisis. In comes Albert (Rupert Friend), a soft-spoken German prince encouraged to woo Victoria for political traction, only to find himself falling for her over intellectual correspondences and long walks in the royal gardens. Arguably the most winsome element of this film is Albert’s role as equal parts lover and confidante— he is just as much Victoria’s trusted advisor and very best friend as he is the grandest romance of her life. In fact, The Young Victoria isn’t so much a period romance as it is a tale of a bright, progressive young woman growing into the ruler she was always destined to be, only to unexpectedly find love along the way. The Young Victoria is less about lust in love and more about fondness and partnership— for this, it stands refreshingly apart from much of the genre.