10. The Flame Trees of Thicka (1981)
This was one series on Masterpiece Theater that I fell in love with as a kid, because the main character was a girl my age. Her family moves from Britain to Africa in 1914, and you can imagine the adventures and clash of cultures. Based on a book by Elspeth Huxley. Even better than Out of Africa, in my opinion (in fact Hayley Mills as Elspeth's mother is a contender to formidable Meryl Streep in Out of Africa).
9. The Painted Veil
2006 movie starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton based on a novel by Somerset Maugham. The period is the1920's, the story of a beautiful London socialite's marriage of convenience to a shy doctor and the gradual transformation of their relationship from indifference and dislike into deep and abiding love. Set in Shanghai and a remote village, Mei-tan-fu, the scenery is as heartbreaking as the story.
The best version is of course the live musical, but I also loved 2004 movie version with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. A haunting love triangle set in the famous opera house of Paris somewhere around the turn of century, 1900.
7. Amazing Grace (2006)
My first introduction to the amazing Benedict Cumberbatch (as William Pitt) and Ioann Gruffudd (as William Wilberforce) and a moving cameo of Albert Finney as John Newton, writer of the famous hymn. Wilberforce and Pitt join forces to end slavery in Britain in the late 1700's.
6. Les Miserables (1998)
Again, the live musical is the best version, but I also love the 1998 film version of this classic story, with Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Clare Danes. But wait, wait! - there is a 2012 film coming out with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway that I am most anxious to see! The period is from 1815-1830 in Paris and surrounding towns, about the reformed ex-convict, Jean Val-Jean, who cannot escape his dark past, and is hunted almost ruthlessly by Inspector Javert.
5. Persuasion (1995 version)
There is also a 2007 TV movie version of this Jane Austen novel, but I think the 1995 version is much better. The riveting romantic climax of this story, set in the Regency period of England (early 1800's), is what makes this one a keeper.
4. North and South (BBC 2004 version)
Not to be confused with the series by the same name about the American Civil War (which is another good period piece). I fell in love with this story because of Thornton, the male lead, played by Richard Armitage. He's dark and brooding and complex, and unforgettable. The period is the mid 1800's in England its theme is the clash between the attitudes of the industrial north of England and the agricultural south dominated by landed gentry.
3. Sense and Sensibility (1997 version).
While the male lead dominates in North and South, the two female leads steal the show in this one. Kate Winslet plays the fiery Marianne and Emma Thompson is perfect counterpoint as her reserved sister, Elinor. Like all Jane Austen books, this one is also set in regency England.
2. The King's Speech (2010)
Set in England in the 1930's just prior to the beginning of WWII, this amazing movie features Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter at their very best. Won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I cheered. Proof that a great period piece doesn't need any romance to win my heart.
1. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
The 2005 version is also good, but much too short - you really need the six hour BBC version to fully appreciate this most famous Jane Austen story. Plus, Colin Firth as Mr Darcy - perfect. The pride of Elizabeth Bennett and prejudice of Mr Darcy make for a volatile romance, but all the antics of the other outrageous characters make it truly memorable. And did I mention Colin Firth?
Runners up to my top-ten list include:
Miss Potter (2006, Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor)
Young Victoria (2009, Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend)
Anna Karenina (1997, Sean Bean and Sophie Marceau). Another remake is due out in 2012 with Keira Knightley, Aaron Johnson and Jude Law.
My vote is still out on Downton Abbey (it might be a little too soap opera-ish for me: please, don't hate me) (If it had Colin Firth, it might be a different matter).
Do period pieces make you want to dress up and join the (proper) fun, or roll your eyes in despair?