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 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.
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…
“Her life became in part extraordinarily glamorous and high profile,” historical advisor to the film Hannah Greig told the HistoryExtra podcast back in 2008. “The reality of her private life was far less glamorous.”
- Read more: the history of Valentine's Day
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.
In 2015, Brittain’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams revealed her thoughts on the film in an interview for HistoryExtra. “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.”
- Read more: Female Tommies: women in the First World War
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, Victoria writer Daisy Goodwin told HistoryExtra 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 massacre 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.
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.
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.
Bright Star (2009)
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.
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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