Leading ladies in love: 6 historical movies to watch this Valentine’s Day

If you’re searching for a romantic historical movie to watch this Valentine’s Day, look no further than the great love stories of the past. While classic stories such as Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet are stalwarts of romantic storytelling for a reason, there are plenty of films about real love stories to be found. From epic, sweeping sagas to tragic wartime romances, here are six films that are inspired by the relationships of history’s leading women…

'The Young Victoria' follows the early relationship of Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert. The monarch was played by Emily Blunt in the 2009 film. (Images by Bettmann/Getty Images/Alamy)
1

The Duchess (2008)

Based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806), this 2008 film stars Keira Knightley as the 18th-century aristocrat who became one of the pre-eminent political and societal ‘influencers’ of her day.

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The film charts Georgiana’s life – from wide-eyed 17-year-old Lady Georgiana Spencer, full of hope upon her marriage to the astonishingly wealthy 5th Duke of Devonshire; to a famed society hostess who moved with political radicals such as Charles Grey and Charles James Fox. The story is not without tragedy, exploring the gulf between her apparent public power and the remarkable ménage á trois in her personal life, as her husband moves his mistress (and Georgiana’s friend) into their home. A love story unfolds as the duchess becomes disillusioned with her home life and moves closer to one of her political allies…

The 2008 film The Duchess considers life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who is played by Keira Knightley. (Images by Rischgitz/Getty Images | Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
The 2008 film ‘The Duchess’ depicts the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, played by Keira Knightley (pictured on set in Bath, England). (Images by Rischgitz/Getty Images | Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“Her life became in part extraordinarily glamorous and high profile,” historical advisor to the film Hannah Greig told the History Extra podcast back in 2008. “The reality of her private life was far less glamorous.”

A 19th-century engraving. A young woman plays a harp, singing a duet with a man holding the music book, Duets de L’Amour. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
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Testament of Youth (2014)

A portrait of wartime love in all its forms, Testament of Youth is based on the First World War memoir of the same name by Vera Brittain (1893–1970), often described as the symbolic story of a lost generation. Published in August 1933, the memoir captures the impact of the First World War on the lives of women, while paying tribute to those Brittain had lost. Swedish actor Alicia Vikander plays Vera Brittain, while the men she cares for are played by Taron Egerton, Kit Harington and Colin Morgan.

Swedish actor Alicia Vikander plays 20th-century writer and pacifist Vera Brittain in the 2014 film ‘Testament of Youth’. (Images by Hulton Archive/Getty Images | Alamy)
Swedish actor Alicia Vikander plays 20th-century writer and pacifist Vera Brittain in the 2014 film ‘Testament of Youth’. (Images by Hulton Archive/Getty Images | Alamy)

In 2015, Brittain’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams revealed her thoughts on the film in an interview for History Extra. “Testament of Youth captures the conventions of the Edwardian period,” she said. “But more importantly, the film’s coverage of the First World War is staggeringly authentic – it does not hide the tragedies of war.”

Two members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps find another use for discarded helmets in France during the First World War. (Alamy)
3

The Young Victoria (2009)

They are one of the most famous matches in history, and Queen Victoria’s love of her husband Prince Albert is well-documented. In her own diary, the monarch wrote of how the royal pair hardly had any sleep on their wedding night. And in 2018, Victoriawriter Daisy Goodwin told History Extra of how the queen once described “how wonderful Albert looks in his ‘white, cashmere britches’ with nothing on underneath! She’s very frank about her admiration for the male form.”

'The Young Victoria' follows the early relationship of Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert. The monarch was played by Emily Blunt in the 2009 film. (Images by Bettmann/Getty Images/Alamy)
‘The Young Victoria’ follows the early relationship of Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert. The monarch was played by Emily Blunt in the 2009 film. (Images by Bettmann/Getty Images/Alamy)

In The Young Victoria, the princess is played by Emily Blunt, who struggles under the influence of her overbearing mother and household comptroller, Sir John Conroy. She meets Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha while still heir apparent to the British throne. Although relations are frosty at first, they bond as Victoria faces challenges in claiming her crown.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert surrounded by some of their children at Windsor Castle. In the group are Princess Victoria; the future King Edward VII (as a young prince); Prince Alfred, Princess Alice and Princess Helena. Original artwork is a painting by Winterhalter in the Royal Collection. (GL Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

The pair married in February 1840, and we see how the newlyweds stole half an hour alone together before their wedding breakfast (Victoria gives Albert a ring, and he tells her that they should never keep any secrets from each other). It’s not all plain sailing, however, and the film takes a little artistic license with the jeopardy they faced as a couple (for instance, when Albert is injured by a gunshot following an assassination attempt on the queen’s life). Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable depiction of the early stages of one of the most famous marriages in royal history, which was formed on genuine chemistry, fondness and attachment.

4

Belle (2013)

An 18th-century portrait commissioned by the Earl of Mansfield’s family portrays Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth. The gentlewoman was played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the 2013 film ‘Belle’. (Images by Alamy)
An 18th-century portrait (left) commissioned by the Earl of Mansfield’s family portrays Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth. ‘Belle’ was played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a 2013 film of the same name. (Images by Alamy)

Dido Elizabeth Belle (c1761–1804) was an 18th-century gentlewoman who was born into slavery in the British West Indies, the result of an illegitimate union between Sir John Lindsay, an English officer, and an enslaved woman Maria Belle. When Lindsay returned to England, he took his daughter and entrusted her to his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

The 2013 film Belle charts her life, showing how Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was raised as an educated woman alongside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Though the two shared a close relationship, there were still clear differences in their status – as the film shows. When Elizabeth is presented to society in order to make a good marriage, for example, Belle travels to London merely as her companion.

Belle. (MovieStillsDB.com/DJ Films/Isle of Man Film/Pinewood Pictures)

As Belle’s guardian, Mansfield, presides over two of the most important cases in the history of the abolition of slavery in Britain (the Somersett case of 1772 and the Zong case of 1783), Belle becomes increasingly politically aware and forges a bond with anti-slavery campaigner John Davinier, a love story which weathers the inevitable prejudices of the time.

Belle and John did marry in real life and had three sons together (though Davinier was in reality a servant rather than lawyer’s apprentice). Nevertheless, the film is a rich mix of attractive period drama and compelling social history, presenting a remarkable black British life.

Jane Austen 1775 To 1817. English Novelist. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
5

Out of Africa (1985)

Danish author Isak Dinesen (real name, Karen Blixen) first published Out of Africa, her account of colonial life in Kenya, in 1937. The 1985 film starring Meryl Streep explores the experiences of Blixen while establishing her coffee plantation. With its glamorised colonial setting, the film is not without its problems, and some of Blixen’s experiences are often considered to be embellished; for instance, one sequence in the film has the Dane fighting off lions with a whip when travelling across the Savannah to visit her errant husband.

Danish author Isak Dinesen (real name, Karen Blixen) wrote about her experiences running a coffee plantation in Kenya and was played in Out of Africa by Meryl Streep. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Danish author Isak Dinesen (real name, Karen Blixen) wrote about her experiences running a coffee plantation in Kenya and was played in ‘Out of Africa’ by Meryl Streep. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

The central romance between Blixen and English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played by American Robert Redford) is never confirmed outright in Blixen’s memoir (though her adoration for him is clear in her account, and she writes of how Finch Hatton would base himself at her farm for safaris or trips). Nevertheless, it’s a captivating tale, and the film remains popular and memorable for its sumptuous music, stunning airborne scenes and chemistry that establish the central love story.

6

Bright Star (2009)

Bright Star explores the three-year love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne. (Images by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images | AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
‘Bright Star’ explores the three-year love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne, pictured right in a portrait displayed at Keats’s former home in London. (Images by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images | AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Bright Star is a quiet, understated depiction of the love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne (1800–1865). Jane Campion’s film follows the final three years of the young poet who, aloof and serious, is captured by the vivacious 18-year-old seamstress. Taking its name from a sonnet reportedly written for Brawne, Bright Star captures their intense connection that was forged despite social and class restraints. As shown in the film, many felt that Brawne was too fickle and flirtatious for the poet. Even after her death, when the love letters sent to Brawne by Keats were published in 1878, many deemed Brawne an unfit object of Keats’s affection.

Literary women through the ages: Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë all enjoyed female friendships which enriched their writing, say Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney. (Getty Images)

Yet, their relationship prevailed. In 1819, Keats wrote to Brawne: “My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you.”

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The intense relationship between Brawne and Keats lasted from 1818 until his death from tuberculosis, aged just 25, in 1821.

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