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The Top 5 Saddest Costume Dramas

Updated on May 28, 2014
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall | Source

Perhaps William Faulkner is right that “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Many modern film adaptations of great works of literature are decidedly depressing to watch, with plots centered on madness, betrayal, murder, adultery, repression and immorality. There is something about personal folly in films that not only entertains us, but which we can definitely learn from. In keeping with Faulkner's assertion, these period piece movies are dramatic, dark and unnerving:

5. The Forsyte Saga (2002) – Adapted from the dense trilogy by John Galsworthy, this 10 episode meandering TV miniseries chronicles the lives of several generations of the Forsytes, an upper-middle class family in late 19th Century England. While some characters find happiness, others find grief as the result of their poor choices and their unwillingness to change. The ill suited marriage between the Forsyte patriarch Soames (Damian Lewis) and his wife, Irini (Gina McKee), is particularly dismal. Irini is free spirited, passionate, and artistic, while Soames is a businessman with little personality. Soames is smitten and peruses Irini, who is forced to marry due to impending poverty. Rather than accept her choice in marriage, Irini spirals into depression despite having an loving and principled husband.

4. He Knew He Was Right (2004) – Another TV miniseries based on classic literature with an above average cast. The movie is adapted from the 1869 novel by Anthony Trollope, an author with a reputation for penning melodramatic pieces common during the Victorian era. The movie begins with the happy marriage of Louis Trevelyan (Oliver Dimsdale) and Emily Rowley (Laura Fraser). Their marriage takes a turn for the worse when the two disagree about the propriety of Mrs. Trevelyan's friendship with a devious male friend of the family, whom she often entertains alone. While the husband's character is more sympathetic, this movie is maddening because the willful stubbornness of the two leads is what drives the dark central plot, as well as various lighthearted subplots. One can't help but think that if the Trevelyans would just yield a little, they might reconcile, and the movie might end happily.

3. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996) - This movie is so distressing at times that it could have easily been number 1. Without putting spoilers into this list, however, it is worth noting that the ending is redeeming. Released as a made for TV miniseries in 1996, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is based on an obscure 1848 novel by Anne Bronte, the least well known of the three Bronte sisters. Tara Fitzgerald stars as “Mrs. Graham,” a mysterious widow who moves to Yorkshire with her young son. Gradually her gentleman farmer neighbor (Toby Stephens) manages to gain her trust, and learns that she is posing as a widow to escape her husband's abuse. Rupert Graves is downright revolting as Huntington, her villain husband. An astonishing feat for such a striking looking actor, his character is sneering and despicable, devoid of any redeeming qualities. The novel was considered feminist and progressive at the time of its publication. Huntington's wife locking the door on her abusive husband was considered a revolutionary act in a time when women were treated as chattel. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is gripping and engaging throughout.

The Last Mistress
The Last Mistress | Source

2. The Last Mistress (2007) – The Last mistress is a film about people who continually sabotage their own happiness because they prefer suffering. Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou) is a penniless French aristocrat engaged to a wealthy virginal heiress, Hermangarde. Ryno has a reputation as a rake, and before marrying her granddaughter off to him, Hermangarde's Grandmother demands to know if he has ended an infamous 10 year affair with his wild Spanish mistress, Villini (Asia Argento). Though the affair has ended, Ryno confesses that the two are not apart for want of passion, but because they could not bare to be together without tearing each other apart. While deeply in love and clearly each other's sexual match, Ryno and Villini tragically refuse to settle into a satisfying partnership because they are addicted to emotional pain and to the thrill of the chase.

1. Angel (2007) – Peppered with unlikeable and personality disordered characters that we still feel sorry for, Angel is a film about what happens when we refuse to know ourselves or to take responsibility for what we have created in our lives. Angel is a deeply distressing and dark film set in pre-World War I England. The two capable leads are Angel Deverel (Romola Garai) and Esme (Micheal Fassbender). Angel's heroine is a willful and selfish working class author of trite yet bestselling fiction. Angel is determined to make her life into a perfect dreamworld like those in her novels. Through her narcissistic drive and determination, she almost succeeds in creating a fairytale life for herself. At the height of her acclaim and financial success, she proposes to Esme, a handsome but philandering artist. Though wildly successful for a time, Angel refuses to live in reality or to accept any faults that she or her partner may have. Unable to cope with the sadness that she has helped to create in her life, she builds up a wall of lies about her life and her true nature.

Which film is the darkest?

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