In Becoming Jane, when asked by Ms. Radcliffe what her own novels are about, Jane Austen answers, ‘of the heart’.
Because winter is the time for getting cozy with feel-good movies, I have compiled a list of the six best period romances. Look, when you buy a miniseries on Amazon prime for $4.99 based on an Anne Brontë novel, you automatically qualify to write this post. Here’s a secret about me. I love period romances (romantic novels, movies, or often a BBC miniseries set in a specific time period). Some who have found me through my darker writing may be surprised or even disappointed to learn this about me. To them I say, sorry, not sorry. Just like horror, the romance genre is an emotion, the other extreme of the spectrum, some might say. For those of you wondering why I didn’t win NaNoWriMo this year (884 words short!), I was likely watching one of these movies. I recently inhaled all of my favorites yet again in preparation for this post.
Jane Eyre (2012)
I’ve watched three versions of this, and while I appreciated the 1996 William Hurt/Charlotte Gainsburg version and the 2006 Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens series, my favorite is surely the 2012 Mia Wakowski/Michael Fassbender version. I adore not so much the casting choices–though they balance well–but the director’s vision of Jane Eyre’s inner world and story. Through the movie, Fukunaga felt Jane’s life and translated that into film.
I love the literal darkness of the film. But there is light too, playing together with the shadows to heighten the heroine’s feelings and all that other filmography jargon. In my opinion, the film condenses the novel into the best possible film. Fukunaga takes the novel’s genre–Gothic–to heart. It is also a quiet film to the eye and ear alike, with few bursts of vivid color and an even more subtle score, which I believe do the novel justice. It would be a difficult task indeed to paint color to the fantastical reaches of imagination of Jane Eyre, to capture the vivid scope and breadth of her feelings would be nigh impossible. This version toned Jane down a bit to fit the somber aspect of the film. Somber as it is, it is a masterpiece.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Matthew Macfadyen is such a good balance between brooding and attentive. Elizabeth, as portrayed by Kiera Knightley, alternates between light and airy and heavy and pensive. The actors all have a great chemistry (except for Wickham, in my opinion) and the director had a good instinct for playing with that chemistry. It bubbles off the screen. There’s a lot of humor in this imagining, which I appreciated, but the dark revelations of Austen’s social commentary laid out in her novels is also acknowledged. Purists would love the more comprehensive BBC miniseries staring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but the 2007 film has a bit of a different effect, and executes it well in the shorter amount of time. With a lively cast and of course a lovely score, director Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice is a light-hearted but moving film.
North & South (1995)
Score, people, score! The music in this is guaranteed to spark your feels. Besides that, Richard Armitage. Is there any other reason you need? John Thornton, Armitage’s character, is brutal and sharp as a knife, an antihero to be sure. Daniel Denby-Ashe’s soft, dewy portrayal of Margaret Hale is perfect (those names kill me); I’ve just started reading the novel and am struck at how well Denby-Ashe fits the role. The same director who did Downton Abbey also did this older series based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. This miniseries has it all: class distinctions, a whopping roster of deaths, new mill owners versus cotton workers and the union, military crime, mistaken first impressions. North & South explores the lives of cotton workers in the factories of northern England, the rise of unions, and the way of life for the elite class in the idyllic south versus the working class in the northern, more populated cities. See? Educational and squee-worthy.
The casting of Sally Hawkins as Anne is pure perfection. This film is a emotional and immersive (see: score), thrusting you into Anne’s silent observing plight, befitting of the novel’s depths. Charlotte Brontë was quoted in saying of Jane Austen:
“She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasionally graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death–this Miss Austen ignores; she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in his heaving breast.”
C.B. you know you’re my girl, right? Like, I hold you in higher esteem than Jane, but you must have missed this gem of Austen’s, because Anne’s situation is heart-wrenching, and this movie conveys that so well. That quiet suffering, her self-imposed penance to meekly accept her lot, to not think she has the right to fight back. Miss Brontë would have never laid such a charge on Austen, at least against Persuasion, if she had seen the moment Captain Wentworth sees Anne’s strength of character in coming to the aid of the injured Louisa and peaceful acquiescence to her family’s ridiculous behavior. The 2007 adaptation of Persuasion is a handsome, powerful rendering of the novel, but I would advise reading the novel first to fully appreciate it. Since Austen’s most powerful skills are on subtle display in this novel and therefore this adaptation, out of all adaptations of her novels, the novel gives you the most thorough picture.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
I love Tom Hardy as much as the next person, and his Heathcliff was fun–dark, brooding, bitchy–but this one is bold, savage, and screams indie film, which works for me with this Brontë novel. Director Andrea Arnold beautifully renders this fever dream of a novel in an Emersonian juxtaposition of the brutality and beauty of life with the brutality and beauty of nature. She approached her film depiction of the parent work with an instinctive interpretation of the less than linear novel (amiright?) and more of an emotional and mental mapping of the main characters’ inner worlds. Her instincts, in this regard, were on point. And of course the setting. This film’s setting lives and breathes as a character of its own, interlaced with the breaths Cathy and Heathcliff share on the moors and with the moors. One article says of Arnold’s work with this movie that “most directors force-feed the audience; Arnold leaves them hungry and cold” which I felt the novel did in some regards as well.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
I hate the cover of this movie, therefore you do not get to see it here.
Austen is skilled at taking women in their positions, whatever positions they are in, and revealing how hopeless and dependent upon other people their circumstances sometimes are. I love Emma Thompson’s Elinor in this depiction (to be fair, I’ve never watched another depiction of the novel): her position as head of the family, her strength of character, her delicately balanced hope and ferocity–she is sense incarnate! How she must hold silence in her love of Edward to preserve her reputation even if it tortures her to physical weakness. And Kate Winslet’s portrayal of Marianne’s character arc is flawless. This movie shows the humor of the book and the sweet nature of the romance.
This is truly another novel that Charlotte Brontë did not seem to give enough credit in her critique of Austen; because Austen writes satire and comedy, her novels have a lighter tone than the darker Brontë’s works. But if you can pull back the film of satire and comedy, you can see the suffering women, and men, underneath.
Well, there are my top 6 period romances. Have you seen any of these films? Do you agree with or abhor my reviews? Have I–and this is completely blasphemous if I did, and my apologies in advance–forgotten a period romance staple?