10 Best Period Dramas of the ’80s, Ranked


The 1980s were a pivotal period for American cinema. Several genres thrived during the decade – the erotic thriller rose to mainstream prominence, the summer blockbuster began to take shape, and studio comedies received critical and audience acclaim.

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The period drama also saw a considerable boost in the 1980s. Adaptations from classic novels took over the genre, driven by auteurs like James Ivory and Stephen Frears. The 1980s saw the period drama begin a journey that would turn it into one of the most reliable genres in Hollywood, producing some of its most iconic and celebrated efforts.

10 ‘Maurice’ (1987)

Image via Enterprise Pictures Limited

James Ivory directs James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves in the 1987 romantic drama Maurice, based on E. M. Forster’s eponymous 1971 novel. The plot follows the romance between the titular character and his charming and wealthy classmate, Clive, exploring how the experience changes them in later life.

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Like most Ivory films, Maurice is bittersweet yet enchanting. Wilby is a revelation in the leading role, supported by a devilish Hugh Grant doing what he does best. Romantic but grounded and offering a refreshingly raw and realistic take on homosexual love, Maurice is a must-watch for fans of the period drama.

9 ‘The Bostonians’ (1984)

Madeleine Potter and Christopher Reeve in The Bostonians

Striking again and proving the ’80s were his decade, James Ivory directs the late Christopher Reeves opposite Vanessa Redgrave and Madeleine Potter in 1984’s romantic drama The Bostonians. Based on the novel by Henry James, the film follows the battle of wits between an independent and liberated 19th-century woman and her male chauvinist cousin over a young and radical girl.

The Bostonians is a showcase for Vanessa Redgrave’s now-legendary talents, playing an ambitious but stunted woman battling an equally stunted man, too selfish to realize his unhappiness. Like other Ivory-Merchant films, The Bostonians deals with the painful tragedy of life’s circumstances against a rich period setting.

8 ‘The Untouchables’ (1987)

A group of armed men looking at the camera in The Untouchables.

Kevin Costner, the late Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, and Robert De Niro star in Brian De Palma‘s Prohibition Era crime drama The Untouchables. Loosely based on real-life events, the plot centers on Eliot Ness forming the Untouchables team to bring Al Capone down.

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A study on violence, The Untouchables is slick, morbidly funny, and stylish. The film is most famous for Connery’s Oscar-winning performance, although it should also stand out for De Palma’s unusually black-and-white portrayal of the crime genre and De Niro’s childish take on the infamous Al Capone. More audience-friendly than previous De Palma gangster flicks, The Untouchablesis thrilling and incredibly good-looking.

7 ‘The Name of the Rose’ (1986)

Sean Conner and Christian Slater as William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk talking in The name of the Rose (2)

Connery stars opposite a young Christian Slater and a scenery-chewing F. Murray Abraham in the 1986 historical mystery drama The Name of the Rose. Based on Umberto Eco’s seminal 1980 novel, the film follows William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar summoned to a medical abbey to investigate a crime.

Often considered among the most historically-accurate movies due to its impressive production values, The Name of the Rose is a masterclass in medieval storytelling. The film can’t possibly compare to Eco’s triumph of a novel, especially after changing the ending, but it remains a visually dazzling and realistic portrayal of a period often falsely romanticized by Hollywood.

6 ‘Reds’ (1981)

Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Warren Beatty in Reds - 1981
Image via Paramount Pictures

Warren Beatty‘s 1981 epic drama Reds stars the acclaimed actor/director opposite Oscar winners Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The plot tells the life of journalist John Reed, who chronicled the October Revolution in his seminal novel Ten Days That Shook the World.

Reds received 12 Oscar nominations, winning three, including Best Director for Beatty. Thrilling and massive in scope yet intimate and compelling, Reds is the rare film that captures a massive event in history without sacrificing the personal stories of those involved in the conflict. Reds is among the all-time best epic movies, a triumphant achievement in ’80s period dramas and one of Beatty’s finest efforts.

5 ‘A Room with a View’ (1985)

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room With A View

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter star in James Ivory’s 1985 romantic drama A Room with a View. Based on the eponymous 1908 novel by E. M. Forster, Set in the final years of Edwardian England, the film follows the romance between Lucy Honeycurch and the free-spirited George Emerson.

A Room with a View rises on the strength of its two young leads and a stellar supporting cast of heavyweights, including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Daniel Day-Lewis. The novel’s dry and sharp tone might get lost in translation, but the film adaptation makes up for it with a tender and insightful look at class, tradition, and love.

4 ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone‘s 1984 epic crime drama Once Upon a Time in America stars Robert De Niro leading a large supporting cast. The film chronicles the rise of best friends David « Noodles » Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and Maximilian « Max » Bercovicz (James Woods) as Jewish gangsters in the cutthroat world of New York organized crime.

The last of Leone’s films, Once Upon a Time in America is ambitious, ruthless, and utterly unforgettable. The film explores many themes classic in Leone’s filmography — power, greed, betrayal, and lifelong relationships — exploring the darkness within and the ultimate futility of the American Dream.

3 ‘Henry V’ (1989)

Kenneth Branagh in ‘Henry V’ (1989)
Image via Curzon Film Distributors

Kenneth Branagh‘s much-acclaimed 1989 adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic Henry V is among the most celebrated period films of the ’80s. The actor stars in the titular role opposite Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, and Christian Bale. The plot follows Henry V’s ruthless attempts to lay claim to the kingdom of France.

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Henry V received near-universal acclaim, earning three Oscar nominations and cementing Branagh as the best Thespian in the modern age. Sprawling, vast, and ambitious, Henry V is as accessible as a Shakespeare adaptation can be without bastardizing the source material — a herculean feat that not many other writer/directors have achieved.

2 ‘Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Glenn Close as the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liasons

Actors have seldom been as brilliant as the mighty trio of Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Stephen Frears’ 1988 period drama Dangerous Liaisons. Based on the classic novel by Pier Chorderlos de Laclos, the plot centers on the sexual and devious schemes of two cunning aristocrats in pre-Revolution Paris.

Powered by the outstanding performances of its iconic leading trio, Dangerous Liaisons is a riveting, sensual, and endlessly entertaining story of seduction, power, and deceit. Close is particularly great, delivering a virtuoso performance that ranks among the finest in her long and revered career. Dangerous Liaisons is everything a first-class period drama should be, delivering a rich storyline against a lush setting.

1 ‘Amadeus’ (1984)

Amadeus

The late Miloš Forman directs the 1984 period biographical drama Amadeus. Described as « a fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri, » the film stars Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri and chronicles their infamous rivalry in 18th-century Vienna.

Amadeus is Forman’s undisputed masterpiece, an unforgiving and striking study of genius, mediocrity, and the unreachable gap between them. Abraham delivers a tour-de-force portrayal of Salieri, expertly matched by Hulce’s delightfully over-the-top take on Mozart. Historically inaccurate but narratively satisfying, Amadeus is a triumph of the period genre and one of American cinema’s all-time great films.

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