Among my many peculiar pop culture fascinations is a penchant for Victorian period aesthetics. I adore stately architecture, the Viennese waltz and, of course, lethally clever novels about desperately emotional people confined by a strict social code. Unfortunately, most movies that attempt to capture the feel of a good Victorian novel end up looking as frozen-in-state as a painting and sound absolutely rigid. So, when a truly good Victorian period film comes out, it instantly climbs to the top of my favorites list. Here are three of the best.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
British director Stephen Frears used his indie cred to cross the pond in 1988 and adapt the story of Dangerous Liaisons for the screen. It had already seen success on the stage thanks to Christopher Hampton, who himself adapted the story from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. If you want to nitpick, the story isn't strictly Victorian because it takes place in the late 18th century rather than firmly in the 19th, but the mannerisms are all the same. John Malkovich and Glenn Close star as a pair of high society types who make a game of seductions and social machinations. A pair of relatively unknown young talents joined them, namely Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman, as well as Michelle Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer would go on to star in another decent Victorian picture, Martin Scorsese's 1993 romance The Age of Innocence. Dangerous Liaisons was once again adapted in 1999 as the teen drama Cruel Intentions.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick was an incredibly meticulous technical director and his magnum opus is arguably Barry Lyndon, a massive, away-winning film based off of a novel by Victorian standby William Makepeace Thackeray. Thackeray leaned toward the grandiose more often than not and few directors have had the talent necessary to translate his vision to the screen. For an example of a stumbling effort, see Mira Nair's attempt at the oft-adapted Vanity Fair. Barry Lyndon is almost too long to watch in one sitting and it goes to incredible lengths to capture the genuine feel of 19th century European society. Whole scenes are candle-lit, there are piles of costumes and the sheer scale of the sets is unbelievable. Bloated, tragic and strained, Barry Lyndon is the very epitome of the Victorian novel brought to film.
Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Aside from Bram Stoker's Dracula, perhaps no Victorian novel has been adapted for the screen more often than Jane Austen's smart, beautiful Pride and Prejudice. Of all of them, none are better than Joe Wright's stunning take from 2005. Star Keira Knightley embodies Elizabeth, the quintessential Austen heroine. She plays Lizzie with an enviable mix of wit and vulnerability, navigating Austen's complex prose as if it were entirely natural speech. Wright makes the Victorian world look vibrant and lived-in. It isn't stiff or overly mannered, but the film is still gorgeous from front to back. While many Austen fans consider the iconic 1995 British miniseries adaptation the end-all version, it simply doesn't have the punch and grace of Joe Wright's vision.