With seemingly endless hours of historical costume movies and TV shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, broadcast TV, actual movie theaters, etc., we spend a whole lot of time in front of screens, trying to get through our backlog. Alas, not every production set in the past is worth our time (though for ones we DO review, use the search box or menus to peruse the archives!).
Here’s a little behind-the-scenes info: There are some really boring historical costume movies and TV shows out there! We’re not talking Snark Week-worthy travesties — we LURVE watching those. But some stuff is too dull to bother with. Here are the snoozy movies, the weaksauce shows, the stories that don’t even rise up to being hilariously bad. Or the ones that are mildly entertainingy, maybe have OK costuming, or are moderately snark-worthy, but we can’t be arsed to work up a sweat about it. And this time, we ran across a lot of World War II-era stuff that had zero interesting costuming content to discuss!
Thus, here is our occasional series with simple one-line reviews of things we’ve tried to watch but just don’t care enough about to write a whole blog post or podcast. Your mileage may vary.
Babylon Berlin (2017- )
A German-language TV series that premiered on Netflix. With a title like that, I was hoping for sparkle and champagne. Instead, it’s gritty and dark. In 1929 Berlin, a policeman is on the hunt for some blackmailers, while a young working-class woman is trying to scrape by involving some nightclub shenanigans, while Russian emigrés are plotting (and being cross-dressing performers). Definitely worth checking out, but the costumes are mostly too-everyday to bother reviewing in detail. — Kendra
Black Venus (2010)
The story of Sarah Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus,” a Khoikhoi woman (from modern-day South Africa) who was exhibited as a savage in 1810s England and France. It’s a REALLY great movie — the lead actress (Yahima Torres) gives a heartwrenching yet subtle performance that shows just how dehumanizing the whole thing was. The history is mish-mashed a bit, but probably mostly to streamline a few things. I’d write a longer review, but it’s not costumey — aside from the occasional showy bonnet, Sarah’s wardrobe is there to be realistic and everyday, and the only shiny stuff is on extras in the performance scenes. I will say there was not a corset to be seen on ANY female except her sometime co-performer Jeanne, who wore a super modern black leather fetish-y corset during performances. The movie is in a mixture of English, French, and Afrikaans, and you can find an English-subtitled version on YouTube. — Kendra
The Devil’s Mistress (2016)
This film is based on the actual story of Czech-Austrian actress Lída Baarová who was the mistress of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister during World War II. It’s told in flashback with Baarová as a cranky old lady, unapologetic for her Nazi connections, which is both interesting and uncomfortable to watch. A little bit of 1930s-1940s costume content, but also a lot of fucking Nazis and Nazi fucking. — Trystan
Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey) stars in this Netflix miniseries about a town missing most of its men in the Old West (late 1880s/early 1890s Colorado, to be specific). I only made it through 1.5 episodes, and what I can tell you is it seems like a quality production that would be interesting so long as you’re not looking for costume content. There are various outlaws and Important Themes and its well-acted. Just, what you see above is about as exciting as it gets, wardrobe-wise! Also, send them a shipment of hairpins, stat. — Kendra
The Halcyon (2017)
Goings-on between upper-class patrons and lower-class workers at a posh 1940s London hotel during the Blitz. The storylines are nothing we haven’t seen many, many times before, so no surprise the series was canceled after one season. Watch only if you’re super into the period and sick on the couch one afternoon. — Trystan
The Queen of Spain (2016)
Not a bad movie — it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious at times. But there is a male rape scene (not explicit) that’s treated as a joke, which is highly problematic. And as a costume movie, well, it’s set in the 1950s shooting a film about Isabella I of Castile, so there’s zero historical accuracy when it comes to Spanish renaissance clothing. But it’s a decent representation of what a 1950s historical movie might do. — Trystan
Suite Française (2014)
Michelle Williams is a randomly British-accented Frenchwoman living with her overbearing mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) while her husband is away fighting in World War II. A German soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) is billeted with her, and the two are drawn to each other, but the realities of war complicate things. It’s not perfect, but the acting from the leads is great, and seeing what life was like under occupation is fascinating. The costumes (by Michael O’Connor) were very well done, spanning the class spectrum, although not flashy. AMAZING HATS, though! — Kendra
Their Finest (2016)
This World War II period flick has a sweet little story that doesn’t always go exactly where you think it will, and I give it props for that. But the movie still isn’t earth-shaking on either the comedy or drama scale. Also, the costumes are standard-issue 1940s wartime gear. A mildly amusing way to pass 117 minutes (I watched it on an long plane trip), but there isn’t enough for me to review here. — Trystan
Do you love one of these historical costume movies or TV shows? What else should we remove from our queue? Have you searched our site recently to see if we’ve already reviewed your faves?
I mildly enjoyed both Their Finest and Suite Francaise, but mainly more for the attractive leading men than the story. I was irritated by the plot twist in Their Finest, but understood why it was necessary. I keep trying to watch my way through The Halcyon and then stopping. It just isn’t catching my interest. But, thanks to a recent post of yours, I did binge watch Morocco: Love in Times of War and loved it! So keep your period drama coverage coming, please.
“mildly enjoyed” — yup, that says it all!
I love these abridged versions, but sometimes they are tantalising enough that I want a bit more, albeit not the whole film…thanks for the reviews.
Haven’t seen any of these, but as a result of your reviews, there are a couple I would like to watch and a couple I’m glad to know I should stay away from.
I was drawn to The Halcyon based on the stills I’d seen, but dear lord it bored the life out of me within ten minutes :( Babylon Berlin I haven’t seen, but it sounds both right up my alley and like it’s definitely gonna show up on television where I live!
I just binge-watched Babylon Berlin and I thought it was brilliant. None of the costumes were particularly exciting though there are some pretty dresses in the nightclub (also a great choreographed scene though I can’t remember which episode). Really looking forward to the next season.
I also liked Their Finest and keep meaning to watch Suite Francaise. I loved the book and somehow the DVD was never released in the U.S. I managed to track down a non-USA format DVD but still haven’t tried to watch it yet. Some good actors in it so it sounds promising.
I made it through about 3.5 eps of Godless. The story dragged badly, the endless parade of cliches didn’t help, and at the point where they introduced the Magical Indian Making Sage Pronouncements(tm) I gave up.
The costumes didn’t get better either.
Oh god, I’m really glad I didn’t make it that far!
Oh I am really looking forward to Babylon Berlin being obsessed with Weimar Cabaret, but the little bit I have seen looks like too many frocks came from http://www.cheaparsegatsbyfrock.com or whatever it’s called…
Intend to watch Suite Francaise and Their Finest. In fact I almost watched the later today but having just watched A Quiet Passion I thought I had better space out the new stuff so put it off for a week or so. I considered The Halcyon but get a bit tired of series depicting the rich and privileged nice costumes not withstanding and as it sounded soapy I did not bother. Godless does not appeal. Sadly, although there are more period dramas coming out now it seems there is less than ever to watch because so many are either too soapy, too shoddy or murder/mystery stories which don’t interest me. (though I am looking forward to Murder on the Orient Express)
Godless was fantastic! Michelle Dockery really impressed me. She had some trouble emoting with her voice while keeping the accent up, but I felt she more than made up for it with her body language and facial expressions. All the characters were fascinating and I was emotionally devastated at least once in each episode.
I watched the whole thing over winter break with my dad. It was filmed up near our family homestead, so every once in a while we’d have to pause and call for everyone to come and look at some background thing that we recognized.
I will allow that some of my love for this series is probably tied to the location. New Mexico is the ‘Land of Enchantment’ for a reason. There’s tons of sweeping shots of the horizon and miles of gorgeously colored landscape. The final showdown between Frank Griffin and Roy Goode takes place in this gorgeous meadow up in the mountains that my family has been hiking to for as long as I can remember.
Personal bias aside, I loved how they fleshed out the world of the series with the quirks of La Belle and Blackton and the personalities and backgrounds of their inhabitants. I really fell in love with the relationship between Maggie and Callie. The way Maggie’s brother struggled with accepting her sexuality was one of those things where it felt both period appropriate and relevant to the present.
The costumes are pretty bland and lacking supporting undergarments but, as with the lack of hairpins, I saw it as a stylistic choice to show the audience that this was past the edge of civilization. In reality, not putting your hair up while you’re doing farm work wouldn’t make sense at all, but this is Hollywood wild west.
I liked Their Finest quite a lot, but I really love the novel it’s based on, Their Finest Hour And A Half, by Lissa Evans. There’s a lovely secondary storyline that didn’t make the film, involving a character who is a seamstress at Madame Tussaud’s.
I watched Godless and I really like some aspects but not others.
First, it was definitely a slow burn. The first three episodes were setting the background of the story and I rather liked it. Episodes four to six were definitely better.
Second, I liked the acting for the most part. I agree with @Lin that Michelle Dockery struggled with the balance of accent and emotions but her back story could also explain that aspect too. Jeff Daniels was absolutely brilliant—his bad guy is terrifying. But there was a lot of good acting all throughout.
Third, I really liked the fleshed out characters. People had quirks and were doing their best with limited resources. In that regards it was fairly realistic. Costumes and hairstyles reflected that. You had some women neat and proper whilst others weren’t so much.
I also liked the fact women, including prostitutes, were shown. They fleshed out several women and that was nice. It was a hard life for everyone and they had to make do to the best of their abilities. (I say this because the prostitute was also the town’s teacher and was exceptionally rich).
My chief complaint? The ending. Without giving away spoilers, episode seven felt very disconnected to the first six and many storylines that were building one way took a completely bizarre route. And a few things flat out didn’t make sense.
But overall, I did like Godless.
I’m really, really tired of WWII films. I think I watched a LOT while I was studying German, because to their credit Germans make a lot of films about the Holocaust. But I can’t think of any I would watch again except In the Garden of the Finzi Continis (but that’s more focused on an isolated paradise that is destroyed by the war.) Lovely costumes if you like tennis wear! Also, BIG disappointment that Babylon Berlin did not explore the nightclub and underworld more. I really thought that would be the focal point and such a missed opportunity.
As far as “Suite Francaise” goes, the screenshot you posted shows a HUGE costume flub. The German officer’s tunic is missing the Wehrmachtsadler (or alternately, Hoheitszeichen), in other words, the eagle clutching the Nazi swastika in its claws which was worn above the right breast pocket on every German military uniform – Heer (army), Luftwaffe (air force), Kriegsmarine (navy) – during the Nazi regime; the Waffen SS wore this insignia on the upper left sleeve. I know this was likely done to avert potential problems with the laws of some nations (notably Germany) that restrict or prohibit the display of Nazi regalia, but it’s deeply irritating.
I’m looking forward to watching Suite Francaise.