10 Movie Stars Who Are Better In Period Pieces Than Real Life

Sometimes, as these films point out, turning to the nearest corset or sleeveless leather jerkin is good for the screen performer. Let’s take a look at 10 movie stars who are better in period pieces than contemporary life.

“Let’s do it with the corset on.”

Jamie Dornan’s new TV foray, Death and Nightingales, has inspired this list. His new BBC period drama, set against the “Fenian dynamite campaign” of the 1880s, recounts the story of Beth Winters (Ann Skelly) and her struggles with an overbearing step-father Billy (Matthew Rhys), a conflict that introduces her into the life of the charismatic Liam Ward (Dornan). From Dornan’s majestic shag haircut and beard, we were in love. It’s not really that we don’t love Dornan, it’s just that… we wish he would dress like that all time. So, we started thinking about other stars we like better in their period garb — people who might come off as average schleps in the present, yet who gain an irresistible allure when you put them in a sleeveless jerkin. Forthwith…

10. Kate Winslet

Titanic, Revolutionary Road, Finding Neverland, Sense and Sensibility

Titanic, James Cameron, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio

While her films always display her rich range as an actress, it’s Kate Winslet’s timeless features and form that land her on this list. Much as we loved Eternal Sunshine, seeing Winslet in a hoodie instead of a corset just seemed wrong, not to mention dowdy. We prefer her Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility or Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland. And obviously, her performance as Rose DeWitt Bukater helped a whole generation of men learn how sexy the early 20th century really was.

9. Cate Blanchett

Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Robin Hood, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Elizabeth

Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth

Cate Blanchett’s sculpted cheekbones automatically generate an air of regalness, refinement, and wisdom. Slather those cheekbones in wigs and powder, and for some reason, it works even better, as revealed by her Queen Elizabeth. I’m Not There only solidified her cross-generational sexiness: getting aroused by a woman imitating Bob Dylan at the height of his anaemic, speed-popping misanthropy is not easy, but Blanchett made it look like a breeze.

8. Emma Thompson

Sense and Sensibility, An Education, Brideshead Revisited, Much Ado About Nothing

Emma Thompson

Are you watching a Victorian romance starring an acerbic, assertive female lead who can hold her own against her cocksure male counterpart? You’re probably watching an Emma Thompson film. The resident wit of this list, Emma Thompson can work a bonnet and a satin frock like no other highly-lauded, classically-trained actress. We’re equally aroused and amused watching her Beatrice scrap with Kenneth Branagh’s Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. Sadly, the same could not be said for her dour contemporary author in Stranger Than Fiction.

7. Keira Knightley

Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice, The Duchess, Atonement, Anna Karenina

Keira Knightley, Top 10 Films, Anna Karenina

We loved Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method, where her portrayal of Sabina Spielrein (patient, student, and mistress of Carl Jung) featured lace, high collars, top buns, and some light bondage. But that’s no surprise — her ever-hanging lower lip is best accompanied by corsets, hoop skirts, and tight banana curls. (See: The Duchess, Anna Karenina, or hell, everything.) Her brand of pouty persuasion is so inextricably linked to the period-piece market that seeing her in 21st-century clothing (as in Domino) now seems oddly anachronistic. And libido-killing.

6. Marion Cotillard

La Vie En Rose, Midnight in Paris, Big Fish, Public Enemies, Nine

Midnight In Paris, Film, Top 10 Woody Allen Films, Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams

Marion Cotillard struck a chord in us when she donned Edith Piaf’s famously high forehead and thin brows in La Vie en Rose, establishing the coy and languid charm she would bring to nearly every role. Watching her play Picasso’s muse Adriana in Midnight in Paris, we want to make like Owen Wilson and flee into another century with Cotillard. Somehow, though, we don’t find her quite as toothsome in modern-day films — she was a little crazy in Inception, but it wasn’t the old-timey, good kind of crazy.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio

Titanic, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Aviator, Romeo + Juliet, Gangs of New York

Though hardly relegated to period films, Leonardo DiCaprio sure has slapped his name on quite a few — and they’re usually poignant portrayals of men struggling against terrible odds. After watching him grapple with such lofty themes from the past, we find it hard to sustain our level of lust for him in the present. Much as we loved his twitchy turn in The Departed, our collective bosoms heaved a little harder watching him in wide-lapelled ’40s garb in Shutter Island.

4. Jeremy Irons

Man in the Iron Mask, The Borgias, The Merchant of Venice, M. Butterfly

Jeremy Irons

We don’t know if it’s the silken timbre of Jeremy Irons’ voice or his dark leer that lends itself so well to period films. But inhabiting characters like wooly musketeer Aramis or the titular protagonist in The Merchant of Venice is second nature for the venerably-jawed Irons. Even his awards-show garb is suspiciously anachronistic. Guys, Jeremy Irons might actually be centuries old.

3. Orlando Bloom

The Three Musketeers, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, Pirates of the Caribbean

Orlando Bloom

Bloom remains limp and unlikable in virtually anything set in contemporary times (Elizabethtown), so we’re in favour of his choice to take roles predominantly in period films. Whether he’s dressed as the buccaneering Will Turner or the buckinghamming Duke of Buckingham, we never tire of seeing the newest period garb filmmakers have found to cloak Bloom’s symmetrical features. Bonus points for making even atrocious and period-appropriate goatees and pencil moustaches look good.

2. Colin Firth

The King’s Speech, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Shakespeare in Love

The King's Speech, Tom Hooper, Colin Firth

Colin Firth often plays middle-aged, physically – and psychologically – handicapped men dealing with painful emotional obstacles — from chronic stammering to the sudden, crippling loss of their gay lovers. But somehow, those men are immeasurably appealing solely by virtue of appearing in the past. The man in his late fifties troops back down from over-the-hill via roles like King George VI in The King’s Speech and A Single Man’s George Falconer. Sporting a wide cravat or sleek Buddy Holly frames, Colin Firth would rest easy in our arms, even if we might pass him by on the street today.

1. Ben Affleck

Argo, Pearl Harbour, Shakespeare in Love, Dazed and Confused

Ben Affleck - Argo

Ben Affleck is a good-looking man. But in roles where he leaves behind his well-kempt, tailored look for long-haired guile, he truly shines. Sure, he can play a dapper Air Force lieutenant, but Affleck can also incite lust as a vaguely fey Ned Alleyn or a shaggy retro CIA agent. That’s range. Leave the wig on, Ben. Forever.

Written and Compiled by Danielle Herman

Over to you: which actors are better in period pieces than contemporary life?

Danielle Herman
About the Author
Working for the largest negotiation consultancy and advising businesses on how to leverage their position is enjoyable. But I would always much prefer watching and writing about films.

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  1. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    Fun idea for a list but I was immediately thinking about how good Kate Winslet was in Eternal Sunshine.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Interesting choice for number one. Also, nice to see DiCaprio mentioned as well.

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