For this week’s Atlantic culture newsletter, I was asked to nominate the best thing I’m currently watching. I picked The Empress on Netflix:
… a German-language period drama telling the story of Elisabeth, or “Sisi,” the 19th century empress of Austria. Beautiful, divisive, suffocated by the demands of royal life—very much the Habsburg Meghan Markle.
There are two reasons I’m enjoying it so much:
I know the history less well, and therefore have no idea what the “right” answer is to the dilemmas the characters face. Should the Habsburgs intervene on behalf of Napoleon or the Russian tsar in the war convulsing Europe, or try to stay neutral?
It’s not postmodern: no modern slang, modern music, etc. I never thought I would say this, but after a glut of self-aware anachronism in series such as The Great, Bridgerton, Dickinson, The Serpent Queen — I respect the restraint of playing straight.
I’m glad I took a chance on The Empress, because the phrase “German with subtitles” nearly derailed me. What other period dramas are unfairly overlooked? Leave a comment below.
The mid 90s Persuasion starring Amanda Root nails the inhibitions of the period. But I guess that’s adaptation rather than a straight period drama?
To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s film about the Brontë sisters, is beautiful.
How interesting, I wonder how it's gone down in Europe where I ,and the generations before me, are totally wedded to the 1950s version of the Sissi biopic starring Romy Schneider. Less historically accurate but stunning!
I recently enjoyed The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (whimsical and weird and starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and Radioactive (Marie Curie biopic starring Rosamund Pike) as palate cleansers from that 2022 Persuasion. Mischief managed.
I really love the 2004 version of North and South.
Parade’s End? - hardly overlooked but cruelly dismissed as inaudible by my parents and all their friends.
Does The Terror count?
Would love to see more of these posts Helen. I trust your readers to unearth all sorts of great telly + film.
'The Wings of the Dove' deserves to be reappraised!
If 'Maurice' was released today then surely it would be a much bigger deal than it was then?
The reluctant empress, about Sisi’s life, is excellent.
Portrait Of A Marriage. Janet McTeer, Catherine Harrison, David Haig. Stellar acting. Back in the good old days of mini-series!
Two films that come to mind are Raise the Red Lantern, a Chinese film set in the 1920s, and Van Gogh, a rather long French film about the last days of the great artist.
Both films are very serious and rather austere; I don’t think either had a soundtrack. And they look immaculate too. Part of the attraction is they assume the audience has a reasonable attention span.
A quick internet search reveals that they were released in 1991, when I was, er, 18 years of age. So, perhaps the raging hormones I endured at that time somehow explain why they stick in my mind so much.
Moreover, late last year I saw The Draughtsman’s Contract at the National Film Theatre. It was every bit as good as I had remembered when I saw it about 30 years ago.
I don’t know if it was underrated but I was a huge fan of the BBC’s Tom Jones.
I loved BBC1's Dickensian - a murder mystery mash-up of Dickens' characters in half-hourly soap-style episodes co-written by Tony Jordan, Sarah Phelps et al. Cancelled after one series - partly I think because the Beeb was careless in moving it round the schedules a lot.
Another under-rated period drama based on an Elizabeth Gaskell novel is Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Wives and Daughters?
Another non-English suggestion - the 1996 French film Ridicule is a great depiction of late Versailles silliness! I also quite liked Quills (not French) from 2000 - a little over ripe but pretty interesting.
The TV adapt of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell seems to have been kind of forgotten - a shame as great performances and it looks beautiful.
I've not seen it (on my list!) but apparently Impromptu (1991) is great.
The 2007 version of Northanger Abbey is such a fun, comforting watch (the two other 2007 ITV adaptations, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, not so much) and has great performances from Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan when they were relative unknowns.
The film Queen Margot is one of my favorite things.
HARLOTS is excellent!
I remember massively enjoying the perhaps slightly ripe The Devil's Whore on Channel 4, set around the time of the English Civil War. The cast! Andrea Riseborough, Capaldi, Fassbender, Dominic West, Maxine Peake... whether it holds up, I don't know, but I was gripped at the time.
So many: I’m a huge fan of period drama. My favourites include two Davies adaptations: Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace, which I feel is underrated (I’ve read the book). The Forsyte Saga (on the side note, nobody seems to read the book anymore, which is a shame as it’s brilliant - Galsworthy won Nobel Prize for it). Dickensiian was ingenious and NOT postmodern.
If "German with subtitles" sends you skittering into the farthest corner does that mean you've been avoiding Dark? There is a dubbed option, but I'm finding the original language subtitled version completely enthralling. From what I gather it's one of those rare shows which actually manages to tie off all of its set up threads successfully and in a satisfying manner by the show's conclusion. Which makes the early cancellation of 1899 from the same creative team all the more frustrating.
There is a perhaps newer film whose subject is Sisi- "Corsage" which I greatly enjoyed showing the tremendous restrictions on the unfortunate woman.
I loved the 1981 Portuguese film Francisca, which only became available on streaming a few years ago. It's on Criterion if you have it.
One of the very few historical dramas that really feels like it came from that time period. I would put Barry Lyndon in the same category.
The Bonfire of Destiny on Netflix. In French with English subtitles. Apparently based on a real fire during the Belle Epoque. Events around it are dramatized of course.
The BBC North and South with Richard Armitage is a favourite of my wife and I.
Cries and Whispers
A film - Corsage - also about Elisabeth was released over Christmas. I'm an Elisabeth nerd and found it much more true to life/the biographies. Regrettably it contained some postmodernism via the music and a weird subplot, but it was completely captivating.
As another commenter mentions, 'A relunctant empress' is a fascinating read - although it reveals the many similarities between Elisabeth's life and those of celebrities today.
A Royal Affair - brilliant film about Danish, mentally challenged King Christian, his foreign wife and her lover. Great acting, a fascinating plot AND Mads Mikkelson stars in it. Based on a true story and said to be accurate to the known facts. Highly recommended.
Black Sails, the pirate drama with unbelievably good writing, has to be up there.