Sumptuous costume dramas can provide a much-needed escape in troubling times, but if you’re tired of the usual assortment of airless parlours, manicured lawns, and straight-laced suitors, there is an alternative: a subset of films that play with our expectations of the genre. Combining post-punk soundtracks with cross-dressing, lobster racing, colour-blind casting, and illicit love affairs, they allow us to view history through a new lens and feel surprisingly modern as a result.

In 2022, a number of hotly anticipated films and TV shows are set to join their ranks, from the forthcoming second seasons of Bridgerton and Gentleman Jack to a fresh take on Persuasion starring Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis and Henry Golding. Ahead of their release, we shortlist 12 lavish, quick-witted, and gloriously unconventional period dramas to watch now.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

With shopping montages set to ’80s pop, salacious masked balls and midnight wanders through Versailles, Sofia Coppola’s account of the doomed French queen’s reign is gleefully subversive. As embodied by a fresh-faced Kirsten Dunst, she is an exuberant teenager who seeks solace from her loveless marriage in reckless hedonism. From the candy-coloured Manolo Blahniks to her ruffled silk ballgowns, the film is a visual feast that lets you revel in the pleasures of centuries past.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Elemental and erotic, Andrea Arnold’s reimagining of Emily Brontë’s 19th-century novel drips with longing. It casts Solomon Glave and James Howson as younger and older incarnations of Heathcliff — the first time the Byronic hero has been played by Black actors — and Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario as the wild and wayward Cathy. As childhood friends, they run through misty marshes and windswept hilltops together but as adults, their love soon proves to be mutually destructive.

Belle (2013)

A remarkable true story forms the basis of Amma Asante’s swoon-worthy romance. It sees Gugu Mbatha-Raw play Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy captain. Born into slavery in the 18th century, she becomes an heiress who attracts her fair share of suitors, until an idealistic lawyer (Sam Reid) catches her eye. Their relationship marks Dido’s political awakening, as she considers her position in society against the people of colour who are still treated as property.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

It’s impossible to take your eyes off Florence Pugh in William Oldroyd’s steely Hitchcockian thriller set in 19th-century Northumberland. She plays a teenager who is married off to a tyrannical older man (Paul Hilton) and forbidden from leaving their estate. When he has to travel on business, she gets a taste of freedom, falls for a rugged groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis), and decides to take control of her life. The performances are haunting, the set decoration pristine and the tension rapidly rising.

Love & Friendship (2016)

Jane Austen’s acerbic wit takes centre stage in Whit Stillman’s social satire based on her epistolary novel Lady Susan. It stars Kate Beckinsale as a charismatic widow who is desperate to secure her future, and that of her young daughter (Morfydd Clark), by marriage. She travels from the home of one wealthy friend to another, decked out in plumed hats and silk capes, enchanting everyone she meets and plotting her next move. Expect big laughs, surprise cameos, and a scandalous final twist.

The Favourite (2018)

The 18th-century court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) provides the setting for Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurdist black comedy about power struggles and palace intrigue. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are delicious as the two ruthless favourites of the monarch, who try to outmanoeuvre each other at all costs. Their days are taken up with shooting practice, lobster racing, pelting men with fruit, and slipping poison into unattended cups of tea. Best of all, there isn’t a damsel in distress in sight.

Colette (2018)

Period drama veteran Keira Knightley shines as the titular French novelist in Wash Westmoreland’s love letter to 19th-century Paris. We follow her as she marries Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) and writes Claudine à l’école, which is published under his name. Its success leads her to rebel, firstly through passionate love affairs with women and then by reclaiming her authorship. Her costumes — straw boaters, puff-sleeved blouses, louche suiting — only add to the film’s appeal.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

An artist (Noémie Merlant) arrives on a deserted island in Brittany at the start of Céline Sciamma’s mesmeric 18th-century love story. She is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of a troubled young woman (Adèle Haenel) who is promised to a Milanese nobleman. Through the course of their sittings, the pair embark on a secret affair and dare to imagine a world where they could be together. The final product is as ravishing as it is revolutionary in its celebration of the female gaze.

Little Women (2019)

Female ambition is at the core of Greta Gerwig’s retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic. Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are charming as the March sisters, freewheeling teenagers who put on plays, form a secret society and develop a keen understanding of the relationship between art and commerce. As they chase their dreams in New York, Paris, and at home in Concord, Massachusetts, they transcend the limits imposed on the women of their era.

Emma (2020)

Snarky retorts, fleeting male nudity, and a proposal scene cut short by an unexpected nosebleed are just some of the elements that set Autumn de Wilde’s Regency romp apart from the average Jane Austen adaptation. Anya Taylor-Joy sizzles as the matchmaker at its centre who is determined to find an eligible bachelor for a new friend (Mia Goth). The suitors – Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner – are sultry, the pastel-hued interiors delectable and the costumes ostentatious.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

You can rely on Armando Iannucci to breathe new life into Charles Dickens’s sprawling bildungsroman. In the hands of the endlessly inventive comedian, the tale of a boy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and seeks out fame and fortune becomes a madcap delight complete with a zingy script, cartoonish punch-ups, collapsing sets and a heady dose of magical realism. Dev Patel is the dashing lead, supported by Peter Capaldi as a top-hatted menace and Tilda Swinton as an eccentric landowner who kicks trespassers off their donkeys.

Ammonite (2020)

Romance blossoms unexpectedly on the rocky beaches of 19th-century Lyme Regis in Francis Lee’s gentle melodrama following a curmudgeonly palaeontologist (Kate Winslet) and a fragile young woman recovering from a recent tragedy (Saoirse Ronan). When the latter’s husband, a prominent geologist, pays the former to care for her while he’s away on an expedition, the two women come to rely on each other and eventually give in to their desires. The score is sweeping, the costumes impossibly intricate, and the ending fittingly bittersweet.