In honor of Valentine’s Day, which you may or may not hate with the heat of a thousand suns (I, for one, am ambivalent), I offer up a list of my favorite historical costume films that enthusiastically wallow in the misery of tragic romance. Because happily is not always ever after.
Becoming Jane (2007)
I love this film so much, and I cry every time I watch it. Part of it’s appeal for me isn’t just that it’s a story about the life of a woman who dedicated her novels to perfect love because she was denied it herself (as a writer, I can so relate to that), but because this is also a good example of a woman who has tasted the bitterness of life, but moved the fuck on, becoming a badass in her own right. If Jane Austen’s life story isn’t one of empowerment, even within the restrictive culture she existed in, then I don’t know what is. She didn’t end up with the guy at the end of the day, but she also didn’t lay down and waste away. Anne Hathaway stars as Jane and My Boyfriend James McAvoy plays Tom Lefoy, the alleged inspiration for Mr. Darcy.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Yes, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Will (Joseph Fiennes) are destined not to be together (for starters, he’s already married and she’s engaged to a rich guy, and neither are in the same social class during a period when that mattered a lot). But, the film ends with a distinct note of optimism after the lovers are forced apart, by society and then an entire ocean. Viola becomes the inspiration and namesake for Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroine in Twelfth Night, immortalizing her forever. Of course, this film is heavily fictionalized, but the story is classic tragic romance — painful and yet, optimistic.
I actually really don’t care for this film, despite the amazing costumes (and to be frank, the costumes ARE amazing). I think it’s way too long, and the dialogue between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is so basic, a twelve-year-old could have written a better love story. That said, it still punches all the emotional buttons, almost to the point where I hate watching it because it does this so well. The boat sinks, Jack dies, Rose’s heart will go on … And there’s the upbeat ending that shows that Rose was able to reinvent herself after it was all said and done, and go on to live a long and rewarding life, presumably on her own terms. Something, something, girl power.
The Heiress (1949)
Those of you who have seen this film are probably wondering why I think this goes in the romance category. Well, because, Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) realizes that the man she’s in love with, who has spent YEARS dangling the promise of his love over her and then yanking it away, is a cad of the worst order and only after her money. In the end, she manages to turn the tables and spurn him, after all the years of him toying with her emotions. Does it make her as bad as him in the end? Maybe. But there is something intensely satisfying about watching her stand up for herself once Morris realizes that he actually does love her. Fuck Morris.
The Age of Innocence (1993)
This classic, gorgeously costumed film has two layers: First, the love affair between the Scandalous WomanTM Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Handsome Eligible BachelorTM Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is engaged to the very young, Very RespectableTM May Welland (Winona Ryder). The story focuses much of its energy on Ellen and Newland as they struggle to keep their feelings in check, but throughout the film runs a subtle arc about May, who at first is made out to be a naive pushover, but by the end of the film is revealed to have been the strongest of all of them for dealing with her husband’s bullshit with grace and not buckling under pressure. I guess that’s the mark of a strong woman… How much bullshit is she willing to endure from her emotionally stunted husband? Newland, of course, only figures this out after May dies. His son talks him into going to Paris to see if Ellen is still around, and he arrives outside her house, then decides against going in. Sometimes it’s better to let the past be in the past, after all.
I kind of feel like this is the story that might have happened after Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Age of Innocence settled France. In this film, Pfeiffer plays the forty-mumble-year old retired courtesan, Léa, who embarks on a decade-long love affair with, Fred/Chéri (Rupert Friend), a the spoiled son of a fellow retired courtesan who is twenty years her junior. It is beautifully filmed and gorgeously costumed, and achingly bittersweet, even if Chéri is completely unworthy of Léa. But hey, who hasn’t fallen for someone who isn’t worthy?
Queen Margot (1994)
Hot sex, pretty dresses, loads of head necklaces, and a tragic love affair all rolled into one angst-filled film that’s loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name. Isabelle Adjani is the beautiful Marguerite Valois, who gets caught up in the web of evil that her mother, Catherine Medici, seems to endlessly be spinning. This, of course, leads her into the arms of the idealistic young Huguenot La Môle (Vincent Perez — whatever happened to him, anyway?), which of course means their love is doomed because Mommy Dearest is set on framing La Môle for murder, which leads to his execution. Margot rides off into the future with his head on her lap and I guess that’s that. But, hey, hot sex and pretty dresses, right?
What romantic frock flicks will you be watching this Valentine’s Day?