There’s just something about historical romances. Whether it’s the costumes or the balls or the seemingly impassable social barriers, these films manage to keep legions of fans enthralled for years. This Valentine’s Day, we’re suggesting a few 18th and 19th romances that should have you swooning in your seat.
Jane Austen Movies
Of course, the master of the genre is Jane Austen, whose classic novels have never been out of print in the two centuries since she penned them. The most famous of her novels, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of spunky Elizabeth Bennet and her conflicted relationship with the wealthy and reserved Fitzwilliam Darcy. The 2005 movie version (PG, Grade: A-) stars Keira Knightley and Matthew McFadyen; the story is also told in the classic 1995 BBC miniseries, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
While acknowledging her flaws, Austen admitted a fondness for Emma Woodhouse, a protagonist whose good intentions are often at war with her arrogance and lack of self-awareness. Gwyneth Paltrow brings her to life in the 1998 Emma (PG, Grade: A-), which provides a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. Anya Taylor-Joy stars in the 2020 remake (PG, Grade: A-), which provides a sardonic twist on the story, with plenty of comedy. There are also two excellent TV versions, the 2009 miniseries starring Romola Garai, and the 1996 made-for-TV production starring Kate Beckinsale. All four versions provide plenty of entertainment for hardcore Janeites and casual romance fans.
One of Austen’s earliest novels, Sense and Sensibility tells the story of the Dashwood sisters. Impoverished by their father’s death, sensible Elinor and wildly emotional Marianne find themselves navigating the complex world of Regency society while trying to tell the good men from the bad. The 1995 film (PG, Grade: B+)not only stars Emma Thompson; it was also written by her and is a good quality adaptation. The BBC also produced a three-part min-series in 1998 that brings a youthful cast to the fore and has a long enough runtime to take a deep dive into the plot.
Recently adapted for Netflix, Persuasion (PG, Grade: B-) follows Anne Elliot, who is awkwardly reunited with the fiancé she rejected eight years before at her family’s urging. This adaption is funny but takes significant liberties with the novel. If you want a more faithful spin on the story, try either the 1995 or 2007 TV miniseries.
Mansfield Park is a difficult novel for modern readers because its protagonist, Fanny Bertram, is both shy and pious. For that reason, we find both the 1999 movie version (PG-13, Grade: C) and the 2007 ITV/PBS made-for-TV movie unsatisfactory. The 1999 film, in particular, features a completely unexpected amount of on-screen sexual content. If you’re looking for a family-friendly petticoat pic, stay away from this one.
While most of Austen’s leading ladies are well-behaved young women, her novella Lady Susan provides a look at the machinations of a scheming, adulterous widow. Retitled Love & Friendship (PG, Grade: B+) the movie version stars Kate Beckinsale as the brilliantly manipulative and completely amoral star of the show. Whether or not you like her is a matter of taste.
It’s not an Austen movie, but Mr. Malcolm’s List (PG, Grade: B+) has a similar vibe, with conniving characters, devious marriage plots, an elaborate revenge scheme, and Regency social restrictions.
Taking a more gothic turn, Jane Eyre (PG-13, Grade: A-) brings Charlotte Bronte’s atmospheric novel to the big screen with Mia Wasikowska in the title role. This story of a governess and her brooding, mysterious employer is also told in the excellent 2006 miniseries starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens.
On the other side of the pond, Little Women follows the lives of four sisters in the Civil War era: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The girls’ trials and triumphs and their romantic adventures have been put on screen in the 1994 film version (PG, Grade: B+), which is a faithful adaptation, and in the 2019 remake (PG, Grade: A-), which plays a bit looser with chronology but attempts to dig into the characters’ inner lives with more depth.
It’s not written as a romance, but the teen adventure thriller, Enola Holmes 2 (PG-13, Grade: B+) sees the titular private detective fall in love with her erstwhile friend, Lord Tewkesbury. The movie has plenty of action but also provides character development for Enola as she considers her relationships.
Romantic Period Biopics
Hollywood has a habit of rooting through history for love stories that can be brought to the big screen. Becoming Jane (PG, Grade: B) tells the somewhat true story of Jane Austen’s own romances – her cancelled engagement and doomed romance.
In Miss Potter (PG, Grade: A), Renee Zellweger stars as Beatrix Potter, who would gain fame for her whimsical children’s books. The love story in this film is between Beatrix and her publisher, Norman Warne.
If tearjerker romances are your style, you’ll be drawn to Bright Star (PG, Grade: B), which recounts the romance between poet John Keats and his beautiful neighbor, Fanny Brawne. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one: Keats is dying of tuberculosis.
The fight against slavery is a key plot element in two excellent British productions. Belle (PG, Grade: A) is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, niece of Lord Mansfield. He’s the Lord Chief Justice of England and is deciding a case that will determine the legal status of slavery in the British Empire. Dido is Black and, in addition to navigating the matrimonial waters of English society, is also vitally concerned with her uncle’s work. The abolition of slavery is a key plot element in Amazing Grace (PG, Grade:A), the story of William Wilberforce. This earnest and devout Parliamentarian is determined to end slavery in the British Empire, in which he is ably seconded by his wife, played by Romola Garai.
If you still can’t get enough of historical romance, you can try The Young Victoria (PG, Grade: A-), which is the story of Queen Victoria’s early years, with a focus on her relationship with Prince Albert. Strong performances and good period detail make this a hit for period film fans. If this movie whets your interest in Queen Victoria, you can watch the BBC’s 2001 miniseries, Victoria & Albert, which extends the story to cover the span of their marriage.