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Top 10 Period Films Set In The 1800s
If you’re in the mood for a great period drama, it can be hard to know where to begin. Well, we’re here to help—we’ve curated some of the more interesting period films of recent years, and we’ll be running them down for you regularly, starting with today’s list of 19th-century dramas. Some are underrated, some are overlooked, but all are well worth a watch.
10 In Secret (2013)
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange
Director: Charlie Stratton
In Secret is a tragic love story with shades of Romeo and Juliet, the tale of a sexually repressed young woman trapped in a loveless marriage by her controlling aunt. She is drawn into an affair with inevitably tragic consequences, and if the plot sounds well-worn, it may help to know that it is anchored by two of the finest actresses working today.
Elizabeth Olsen has demonstrated immense range and talent early into her career, debuting in the highly regarded 2011 thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. Jessica Lange is a veteran, having rocketed to stardom in the 1976 remake of King Kong; today, she is best known for her work in AMC’s innovative horror series American Horror Story. The pair help to elevate the story with heavyweight acting and the period details are well done.
9 Hidalgo (2004)
Starring: Viggo Mortenson, Omar Sharif
Director: Joe Johnston
Based on the true story of distance rider Frank Hopkins and his horse Hidalgo, this 2004 film serves as an excellent vehicle for charismatic star Viggo Mortensen, perhaps best known for his work in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series. Baited into entering a 3,000-mile race across the unforgiving Arabian desert, Hopkins has to contend with not only the brutal conditions but the machinations of those who have set him up to fail.
Aside from a fine performance by Mortenson and commendable supporting acting, Hidalgo features spectacular photography and was helmed by Joe Johnston, a remarkably solid and underrated director. Among his other notable efforts are classics such as The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
8 The Elephant Man (1980)
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt
Director: David Lynch
This biography of the famous “Elephant Man,” John Merrick, was met with widespread critical acclaim upon its release. It features a powerhouse cast including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, and Anne Bancroft, as well as stunning makeup design that had the misfortune of being created a year before an Academy Award category was implemented.
Nominated for a slew of Oscars, the film was beat out for all of them by Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull— interestingly, the only other 1980 film to be shot in black and white. Also of interest: this is the second feature directorial effort by David Lynch, whose debut was the impenetrable Eraserhead and whose future output would be among the most avant-garde in all of mainstream American cinema.
7 Tess (1979)
Starring: Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth
Director: Roman Polanski
Tess was likewise highly praised by critics upon its release and featured Nastassja Kinski at her most ethereally beautiful. An adaptation of the 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess is the story of a young peasant woman whose father sends her to live with what may or may not be rich distant relatives. Her journey is a difficult one, fraught with abuse, and the film today becomes an interesting conversation piece given its director—the notorious Roman Polanski.
The film was shot during roughly the same period that Polanski has been accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl, which makes for an unsettling parallel with the events of the film. Nevertheless, many critics have placed Tess among the undeniably talented director’s best work, and Kinski’s performance is undoubtedly the finest of her career.
6 Lincoln (2012)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field
Director: Steven Spielberg
Set during the American Civil War in January 1865, Lincoln focuses on President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he attempts to abolish slavery in the U.S. by passing the Thirteenth Amendment. Two major goals of the film seem to be to faithfully document a crucial moment in history through entertaining fictionalization and to use Lincoln’s involvement as a way of shining some light on the type of person he was.
Filled with a supporting cast that includes Sally Field, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln offers a glance indoors to what happened in the darkened offices rather than the battles waging in the fields. Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln is superb—his Lincoln is soft-spoken and folksy, with a gentle, reedy voice unlike that of many of the actors who had played the man before but more accurate to historical accounts of what he sounded like. The cinematography and costumes provide a stunning backdrop to the political dealings in the film. Scriptwriter Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg also paired up on Munich. And Day-Lewis is well-known for period films, having made several, including The Last of the Mohicans and Phantom Thread, and he is also no stranger to this list.
5 The Conspirator (2010)
Starring: James McAvoy, Robin Wright
Director: Robert Redford
Many are unaware that more than one person was involved in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and that Lincoln was not the only one marked for assassination. Secretary of State William Seward was shot and wounded the night of Lincoln’s death, and Vice President Andrew Jackson was also targeted. Among the conspirators was Mary Surratt—the first woman ever to be executed by the U.S. Government.
This 2010 film is Mary’s story, illuminating a lesser-known aspect of history and benefitting from the sure-handed direction of Robert Redford. Although well-known as an actor, Redford also has a distinguished filmography as a director. His efforts include the acclaimed films The Horse Whisperer, Quiz Show, and Ordinary People, which won four Academy Awards in 1980, including Best Picture.
4 The Prestige (2006)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale
Director: Christopher Nolan
The more well-known of two 2006 films about magicians in the 19th century, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is widely considered one of his greatest films. The story of two famous magicians desperate to out-do one another with their own versions of the same incredible trick. The film has enough satisfying twists and turns to keep one guessing until the final scene and is also a magnificently detailed period piece.
Among the many highlights are the performances of co-leads Hugh Jackman and Christopher Bale, both of whom were more famous at the time for playing superheroes (Bale in Nolan’s own Dark Knight trilogy). The film also features a riveting supporting performance by the late, great David Bowie as Nikola Tesla—introduced in perhaps the greatest screen entrance of all time.
3 The Illusionist (2006)
Starring: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel
Director: Neil Burger
Though squarely overshadowed by the previous entry, The Illusionist received critical acclaim upon release and leaned more heavily toward melodrama than Nolan’s film. A classic story of would-be lovers who do not share the same social standing, the film is the story of famous magician Eisenheim and how he uses his talents to overcome the machinations keeping him from his love.
Bolstered by a typically intense lead performance by Edward Norton, The Illusionist also features fine supporting performances from Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell, who is perhaps best known for his brilliant lead role in the 1998 sci-fi/noir Dark City.
2 Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken
Director: Michael Cimino
Heaven’s Gate is one of the most polarizing films ever made. After cleaning house at the Academy Awards for his debut feature, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino was given carte blanche to make the project his heart desired. The result, a nearly four-hour dramatization of disputes between European settlers and land barons in 1890s America, was nearly universally panned upon its release. Roger Ebert’s brutal review became rather famous, concluding with, “This movie is $36 million thrown to the winds. It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I’ve seen Paint Your Wagon.”
However, in recent years, the film has received a remarkable critical reappraisal. The original theatrical release, long as it was, was trimmed down from a much longer edit which was said to have made the film much more coherent; in addition, the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. While its name has become somewhat synonymous with cinematic excess, Heaven’s Gate has been deemed a modern masterpiece by some modern-day critics and deserves a look.
1 Gangs of New York (2002)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis
Director: Martin Scorsese
Finally, no list of 19th-century period pieces would be complete without Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s wildly ambitious drama. For it, an entire five-block stretch of 19th-century Manhattan was painstakingly recreated on a Rome soundstage, along with the East River waterfront and two entire ships; dozens of accent coaches, wardrobe designers, and historians of all stripes were employed to recreate the world as accurately as possible.
Of course, being a Scorsese film, it also features a killer story, shocking and unexpected violence, and one of the most storied performances in film history in Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of notorious gangster William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. Although the film strangely failed to win any Academy Awards, it was nominated for several, and Day-Lewis won virtually every Film Critics Association award for his role.