I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed to be a guy who really, really, really likes period films where the ladies wear large, ornate hats.
If you check out my review of this week’s “Brideshead Revisited” on this very site, I have my own name for the genre: Fancy British People Sitting Around Staggeringly Huge Mansions Being Civilized. I love movies about this sort of thing.
If it was shot on location at some grand manor that fell out of the hands of the original family and is now a tourist destination, if it stars Emma Thompson, if British people wear impeccable period costumes while finding themselves — oh, dear — ever so repressed and bucking (and quite a lot, actually) against the constraints of polite society, if corsets are loosened, if corsets even attempt to get themselves loosened, if forbidden passions are squashed by the class system or Dame Judi Dench, I’m in. I’m so in that I’m practically a cup of PG Tips in human form. That’s how in I am.
I have personal rules about this genre: They can’t be about Americans. Now matter how good Merchant-Ivory’s “The Bostonians” was, it still concerns inferior left-side-of-the-Atlantic people. Who needs it? And though, technically, “Gone With the Wind” is also about aristocrats of a sort and thematically in line with much of this genre, it’s also about grubby yanks. Worse, Southerners. (Note to complainers: I am one, so I know what y’all are like.)
They also can’t be French. Those people wouldn’t know moral repression if it glanced disapprovingly in their direction. Last year’s amazing Jacques Rivette film “The Duchess of Langeais” would fit in here — it’s as dour a diorama of uptight longing as exists — but… wrong language. Sorry.
They must take place in England between the years of, oh say, 1776 and 1945. They must star someone like Helena Bonham Carter (pre-“Fight Club” messiness and Tim Burton) and they must feature at least one scene of sexual impropriety, preferably one in which the characters are caught with their pants down and shamed. But above all they must be fancy. No one likes a movie about poor people.
“Wings of The Dove” (1997)Plot: Scruples-deficient couple seeks to woo and bilk rich heiress out of her cash. Moral: That’s not a very nice thing to do at all. You should be ashamed of yourself.Genre typecasting: Helena Bonham CarterEye candy: Costumes so visually lush (from Oscar-winning designer Sandy Powell), you may accidentally tear the screen apart when you try to eat them.
“Pride and Prejudice” (miniseries 1995, movie 2005)Plot: Lizzie Bennet is rather fond of Mr. Darcy. He’s kind of into her, too.Moral: The hottest guy ever is going to sweep you off your feet and it’s going to be awesome.Genre typecasting: In the miniseries Colin Firth became the definitive Mr. Darcy and has coasted on that sex appeal ever since. The miniseries also features Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of Helena. That sort of counts. The 2005 feature stars current fanciest new young actor, Keira Knightley. Eye candy: Gorgeous countryside cinematography suffused with magical English love-mist.
“Maurice” (1987)Plot: Two Cambridge men find themselves falling in love. That sort of thing? Just not done. The “Brokeback Mountain” of this genre.Moral: Pre-Elton John and George Michael and Kylie Minogue, it used to be really tough to be gay in England even if it seemed like every guy was “that way” already.Genre typecasting: Hugh Grant, Ben Kingsley and Brit character actor mainstays Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott, Billie Whitelaw, James Wilby and Rupert Graves.Eye candy: A real cricket match and all the white linen that scenario implies.
“A Room With a View” (1985)Plot: Lucy Honeychurch and her chaperone Charlotte Bartlett go to Florence and passion erupts quite untidily. Not with each other. This isn’t the lady “Maurice.”Moral: Here, enjoy another delicious cake. They’re small. Really, so delicious, too. And while you’re at it why don’t you lighten up already? Here’s some love for you. Would you like to make out? Of course you would. Meanwhile, the Vicar is coming by for some skinny-dipping.Genre typecasting: Helena Bonham Carter, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Julian Sands (before he made all that bank being “Warlock”), Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, Rupert Graves. Basically, the Merchant-Ivory Players.Eye candy: Florence. You don’t need much else.
“Howards End” (1992)Plot: Class warfare! But polite. With a minimum of raised voices. Three families intersect with tragic results for the less moneyed. Then the bookcase falls on that guy.Moral: Rich people will devour you. Do try to get out their way if you can. It’s your only hope, really.Genre typecasting: Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, James Wilby and best-named-ever Brit character actor Prunella Scales.Eye candy: That house is serious architecture porn. That the location’s actual name is Peppard Cottage is brain-breakingly understated and defies human comprehension.
“Brideshead Revisited” (miniseries 1980, movie 2008)Plot: A middle-class Oxford atheist tangles with some Catholics who seem to have invented the concept of money and exclusion.Moral: Don’t cross the Lady of the Manor by romancing both her daughter and her son. She’s got God on her side (and a slightly fatter bank account than him) and together they can buy, sell and ruin you if they feel like it. And they feel like it.Genre typecasting: As fancy male actors go, it’s tough to top young Jeremy Irons who starred in the 1981 miniseries. The new movie features Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon, of course.Eye candy: Again with the house. Seriously, Castle Howard earns its name. That place is so big that it probably contains undiscovered corpses of house guests who died in their sleep there in 1926 that no one’s bothered to go looking for yet.
And I said it’s an incomplete list. But if you’re new to this genre you should also check out “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “House of Mirth,” “Persuasion,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Gosford Park,” “Women in Love,” “Enchanted April,” “Emma” and “Atonement.” I even liked “The Golden Bowl,” but mostly because there’s a character in it named Fanny Assingham and I have the sense of humor of an 11-year-old. I’m kind of easy that way.
Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Find him at .