And ideally these are movies or TV shows where the lesbian / gay / bisexual / transgender / queer (LGBTQ) person is the main character and preferably they’re not a cliche, and they don’t die or otherwise have a miserable ending. If you’re hetero, you don’t realize how limiting that is in any movie, much the less a historical costume movie! Part of this is because the actual history of queer people isn’t all that happy or satisfying thanks to entrenched homophobia and religious intolerance in many societies that forced heterosexuality as the expectation. At least we have a few interesting, enjoyable frock flicks about queer people, some based on historical figures, others that are works of fiction. We’ve reviewed all of these in the past, so do click through the titles for more info!
5. Queen Christina (1933) and The Girl King (2015)
I’m combining these because they’re based on the same person, who was probably bisexual in affections. The 1933 movie only has one fleeting same-sex kiss, due to the production era, while the 2015 film is more explicit in the relationship between the Queen and her lady-in-waiting, Countess Ebba. The ending of each film hews to the facts of Christina’s life, so there’s no romantic happy ending, but it’s not a sad ending either.
4. The Danish Girl (2015)
Eddie Redmayne caused a stir as Danish artist Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Wegener, and realized she was transgender in 1920s Denmark. It’s a beautiful production, costume-wise, and was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar and Best Production Design Oscar. While cross-dressing has long been a plot device in theater and film, serious discussion of transgender people in history can be rare, so hopefully the acceptance this film received may open doors.
3. The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)
Based on the actual diaries of an independent Regency-era gentlewoman and lesbian, this BBC TV movie focuses on Lister’s relationship with a woman who eventually marries. Local gossip threatens to hurt Lister’s status, but that ultimately doesn’t deter her from living her own life as she will. This film had moderate success, and another TV version written by Sally Wainwright (who created the most recent Bronte Sisters biopic) will be filmed in 2018.
2. Maurice (1987)
One of the first and still one of the best historical and openly LGBTQ films ever made. Based on E.M. Forster’s book of the same name, and loosely autobiographical (the author didn’t want it published until after his death), it essentially shows the coming out of an upper-class man in 1910s England. And he and his romantic love interest run away to build a life together! It’s beautiful, yet the film hasn’t been available on DVD or for streaming for years, until finally this past month, it was remastered for its 30th anniversary and had a select theatrical release.
1. Tipping the Velvet (2002) and Fingersmith (2005)
I can’t help but squeeze these in together because they’re both based on novels by Sarah Waters. I think these are each the ideal of what you’d want from a queer movie — that is, they’re just plain entertaining stories that happen to be about LGBTQ people, which adds a few, different complications, but otherwise, it’s no big deal. (Note: this is what you’d want out of movie about women or people of color too. Just saying.) Tipping the Velvet specifically goes into the Victorian lesbian scene, while Fingersmith is more of a Dickensian thriller. But both have plenty of good hijinks and romantic pathos that anyone can dig.
What are your favorite queer costume dramas?
Love these choices! And there are some I haven’t seen so more to put on my list!
Another one on my list is The Night Watch, also a book by Sarah Waters. This one ticks a lot of boxes for me because WWII aesthetic and history is my jam (I know I’m in the minority here). There are multiple LGBT characters in various stages of out-ness (as well as straight people) and gives a great view into their lives and why they make the choices they do. Anna Maxwell Martin is not necessarily as butch as I wanted Kay to be, but life is full of disappointments… Sigh.
Ooo, The Night Watch, I haven’t heard of that, but another Sarah Waters adaption so it’s got a good story! And I love Anna Maxwell Martin in everything she’s been in.
Oh good! I hope you like it! And AMM is very good in the role as a moody soft butch. I just envisioned something a little different.
All great choices. I still, need to see Fingersmith. And I have added Secret Diary of Miss Anne Lister & The Night Watch to my viewing list.
Fingersmith is currently available on Acorn TV :)
My library has copies and I’ve just reserved it. Still trying to find Night Watch and Secret Diary. But thanks.
“The Handmaiden” is a South Korean period remake of The Fingersmith and it was also really good. :)
I need to find that one!
It is now on Netflixs
What about The Music Lovers?
Ooo, I haven’t heard of that one!
It’s Ken Russell’s version of the Tschaikovski story, with Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson.
I actually went and saw the Maurice rerelease in NYC because of this blog! And I absolutely LOVED it. That final romantic scene with Maurice and Scudder makes me damned happy. Such a beautiful, moving, well-crafted movie.
Yay! Now I’m hoping it will come to Netflix or Amazon :)
You can rent it on Amazon or buy the digital version.
The BBC One Christopher and His Kind starring Matt Smith is an incredible “between wars” story based on Isherwood’s memoirs about his stay in Berlin and the inspirations for his Berlin stories.
Ooo, great material & interesting casting! I need to find this.
I was thinking Albert Nobbs (sp?) but that technically, that does not have a happy ending, but his end has really nothing to do with Albert being who he is. His first glimpse of heaven is a cosy sitting room and his wife, so I would like to think that is where he ends up.
Oh yes I was going to suggest this movie; it is charming!
There still has not been a good costume adaptation of Carmilla (though I’m dying to hear you snark on The Vampire Lovers), much as I long for one. But Fingersmith is my favorite that currently exists.
There’s another version of Fingersmith: a korean drama set in the 1930s, The handmaiden. It’s awesome, too, and mix korean, japanese and english clothes…
Desperate Remedies. (New Zealand, 1993)
I wish i could tell you where to find a copy, but there was a lovely movie done by PBS way back in 1976 called “The War Widow”, set during World War I. A woman whose husband has gone away to fight in Europe meets an independent young photographer who is recording the lives of the poor in I believe New York City. It has been many years since I’ve seen it, but i remember it had a lovely visual style, and a very sweet story.
Songcatcher is another that I liked a lot.
Tipping the velvet was eye opening for me. I loved the book but the film was pretty amazing too. I loved Nan’s falling in love and finding herself through it all.
Late to the party as always but what about Victor Victoria? One of my favourite movies. Plenty of interesting stuff around sexuality, if a little glib.
“Tipping The Velvet” has always been my personal favorite both due to Anna Chancellor and its look at the male-impersonator scene, which was a big thing in the Edwardian-era music hall; Vesta Tilley, one of the major stage stars of the period, made her name doing that.