Alexander Larman

The best period dramas are irreverent

The best period dramas are irreverent
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At the moment, there are two costume dramas that everyone is watching, namely Bridgerton and The Great. If you’re a fan of the former, then you’re in good company; it seems to be the Netflix streaming show du jour and millions are enjoying its soap operatic storylines. However, The Great is the real thing, if you’re after laugh-out-loud outrageousness. It comes complete with a scene-stealing, career-best performance from Nicholas Hoult as the vile, hilarious Peter III, Emperor of Russia (not ‘The Great’, as he is constantly reminded, to his chagrin) and with an equally enjoyable Elle Fanning as a young, scheming Catherine (who really is the Great), and a fine array of supporting actors giving various degrees of incompetence, scheming or nastiness.

Many people associate costume dramas with heaving corsets, repressed emotions and crucial plot developments hinging on characters receiving or missing letters, or insulting one another at picnics or balls. All of these things are well and good, but there are also raunchier, funnier films and TV series that lead us to look at the past in a rather different and less sanitised way, to hugely enjoyable effect. Here are some of our favourites.

The Favourite

The film that indirectly inspired The Great – they share Hoult as a lead actor and a writer in Tony McNamara – boasts a similarly profane and scatological sensibility, as well as a welcome willingness to make potentially dry-as-dust historical subjects hugely entertaining and utterly engaging. Revolving around the power struggle that arises from the triangular relationship between Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, her long-time lover Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and interloper Abigail, Sarah’s cousin (Emma Stone), Yorgos Lanthimos’ picture contains regular jaw-dropping moments, a twisted narrative and an Oscar-winning performance from Colman. It’s filthily good fun, although perhaps anyone relying on it to fill in the gaps in their historical knowledge might be disappointed.

The Draughtsman’s Contract

These days, Peter Greenaway is a largely forgotten figure, but in the Eighties he was one of the most exciting directors in Britain, making unusual, formally adventurous films that attracted a cult audience for their games-playing, pounding Michael Nyman scores and twisted, dark humour. The film that first established him was this blackly comic drama, set in the 17th century and revolving around a priapic artist who is commissioned to paint a series of pictures of a grand country house, only to find himself caught up in a murder mystery. A vast amount of the storyline remains opaque and hard to understand, but it is ravishingly filmed, hugely stylish and wittily perplexing.

The Libertine

These days, Johnny Depp is persona non grata, but anyone who has followed his career will know that, as an actor, he has always been drawn to the dark and perverse. There is no better example of this than his portrayal of the notorious poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, in the film adaptation of the stage play The Libertine. Although the film itself suffers from an extremely low budget and from a strangely misinformed climax that features Rochester, near death, dragging himself to London and making a heroic speech to the House of Lords (which was actually done by another Earl of Rochester), it features a fine cast (including John Malkovich as Charles II, Rosamund Pike as Rochester’s long-suffering wife Elizabeth and Tom Hollander as the playwright George Etherege), some memorable comic scenes and an evocation of the Restoration period in all its seamy, filthy glory.

Harlots

This excellent series was barely seen in the UK until recently, when it was bought by the BBC. This was a great pity as, over the course of three series, it explored the toxic rivalry that existed between two rival 18th century bawds, Samantha Morton’s earthy Margaret Wells and Lesley Manville’s disdainful Lydia Quigley. Inspired by historian Hallie Rubenhold’s non-fiction book The Covent Garden Ladies, Moira Buffini’s drama is at times anachronistic, but remains gripping, often hilarious and endlessly surprising. Its portrayal of women selling themselves for sex is gritty and unsentimental, but as the drama expands its scope to include a gang of aristocratic serial killers who prey on prostitutes for fun, it becomes utterly compulsive box-set viewing.

Quills

The Marquis de Sade is one of the most uncompromising figures ever to have lived, a French aristocrat who literally invented the term ‘sadism’ for his sexual fantasies of cruelty and dominance. Therefore, it’s something of a surprise that Philip Kaufman’s film Quills, starring an irrepressible Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis, initially comes over closer to a Carry On film in its innuendo and bawdy humour, as the imprisoned writer spars with Kate Winslet’s good-natured laundress and Joaquin Phoenix’s earnest priest and manages to smuggle his work out of the asylum where he is kept to see it distributed throughout France. Only the arrival of Michael Caine’s stern moralist darkens matters. The film is a testament to the importance of free speech and ideas, however shocking they might be, and ends up being a fairly challenging watch: nonetheless, Rush’s committed performance and the force of the storyline make this unmissable.

Casanova

‘You are charged with heresy. To wit: fornicating with a novice!’ 

‘She was hardly a novice…’ 

The 2005 film of Casanova, starring Heath Ledger as the legendary Venetian adventurer and lover, could never be described as great art, but it’s definitely great fun, and oddly underrated. With a script that was given a polish by the legendary Tom Stoppard, and which bears his unmistakeable wit (to say nothing of allusions to The Merchant of Venice), its storyline of Casanova being tamed by the only woman he meets who can match him for both brilliance and wit may not be the most profound biographical study, but it has a fine central performance by the much-missed Ledger, excellent turns by a supporting cast including Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and a pre-Game of Thrones Natalie Dormer, and, of course, Venice looks utterly wonderful.

Love and Friendship

Anyone who follows Kate Beckinsale’s Instagram account will know how endlessly hilarious the British actress is, which is why it comes as a surprise that she has been given comparatively few roles that have made the most of her considerable comic talents. Thankfully, Whit Stillman’s sparkling and witty comedy, an adaptation of an obscure Jane Austen story, gives her the best part of her career as the widowed, ambitious Lady Susan, forever ready with a damning one-liner or shattering quip. It comes as a surprise, in a stellar cast of actors including Jemma Redgrave, Chloe Sevigny and Stephen Fry, that the show is nearly stolen by the lesser-known Tom Bennett as the imbecilic aristocratic Sir James Martin, whose priceless reaction to being shown peas for the first time is to exclaim, delightedly, that they are ‘tiny green balls’!