The Enlightenment Era dramatically changed the world. It was a time period of great thinkers, new discoveries, and political upheaval, as revolutionary wars and revolutionary ideas overthrew the old feudal orders and ushered in the framework of the modern world. This is what makes the Enlightenment such an interesting time period to set films in.
This is a period with a little bit of everything. Atheism and new forms of Christianity both blossomed. The scientific method was invented while alchemy flourished. Artists, explorers, doctors, and soldiers reinvented their respective fields. In other words, the Enlightenment is epic–but it is also deeply intimate. With all that in mind, here are ten fantastic dramas set during the Enlightenment:
10 Restoration (1995)
Robert Downey Jr. plays the role of Robert Merivel, a young doctor who is recruited to cure a royal patient – King Charles II’s favorite pet dog. After saving the animal’s life, Merivel is shown favor and allowed to partake in the king’s decadently licentious parties at the royal palace. There is just one cost to maintaining the king’s favor: Robert must marry Charles II’s favorite mistress.
This film beautifully recreates the spirit of the times, showing medical developments, the hedonism of royalty, class divides, and the lives of Quakers.
9 The Libertine (2004)
John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a poet, hedonist, and close friend to King Charles II. In the era of Puritanism, Wilmot was a man willing to battle against prudishness with sexually explicit writing and a lifestyle to match.
The poet is masterfully brought to life by Johnny Depp’s performance. Wilmot’s passion, his poetics, and his pathos appear onscreen as he fights against the limits imposed on him by his mortified king and his own syphilitic body’s failing health.
8 Amadeus (1984)
A commonly accepted truism in Hollywood is that the purpose of film is to entertain, not to educate. Amadeus is certainly not educational, as it is a cluster of misinformation. However, it is definitely entertaining. It also succeeds in capturing the spirit and genius of Mozart, if not the facts of his life.
The movie shows a young Mozart as a pervy whimsical savant, gifted in music, but impulsive and underappreciated. Considering the young maestro once composed a piece of music entitled “Leck mich im Arsch,” the film does a great job showing his controversial antics while also conveying the emotional weight of his genius.
7 Stage Beauty (2004)
Actors in English theater used to all be men. The protagonist is Edward Kynaston, one of the boy players of 17th Century London who specialized in playing female characters.
Stage Beauty deals with the aftermath of the king allowing women to act in theater – a decree which essentially makes Kynaston irrelevant. He begins romancing a young actress, Margaret Hughes, the first Englishwoman to act on the stage, and one of the first women Kystonian has ever been intimate with.
6 The Madness of King George (1994)
King George III has a controversial place in history. His war against the Colonies in the New World went so badly that England lost control of them, resulting in the creation of the United States as a new country. He also became erratic later in life as his mental health began to dramatically decline.
With a title like The Madness of King George, the plot is no mystery, but the writing and performances make this an unforgettable film.
5 Rembrandt (1936)
There have been a number of films over the years that give dramatic biographic takes on Rembrandt’s life, almost all of which seem to have taken their titles from the artist’s name. The 1936 film starring Charles Laughton is by far the best.
The cinematography, set design, and costuming in this black and white classic are way ahead of their time, but it is the actors’ performances that feel practically Shakespearean in their passionate oratory and weighty subtlety.
4 To Kill a King (2003)
The English Civil War was fought between the despised King Charles I and the armies of the parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell. As kings were believed to have inherited their royalty as part of their divine right, killing a king was practically unthinkable at the time.
To Kill a King deals with Oliver Cromwell and King Charles I as events lead Cromwell and his friend Thomas Fairfax to confront the necessity of killing their king.
3 Quills (2000)
The Marquis de Sade has left an indelible mark on history. His salacious novels about BDSM were way ahead of their time, being both titillating and philosophically poignant (in fact, the S in BDSM comes from his name).
Quills is a film about the last days de Sade’s life as he is locked in a sanitarium, arguing against censorship and prudishness as he smuggles out his manuscripts. Every time he defies his captors, they invent some new form of punishment for him, and yet he defies them on pure principle, embodying both the carnal and philosophical nature of his writings.
2 Sade (2000)
The year 2000 saw two separate films released about the Marquis de Sade. The French film Sade is the more dramatic and serious of the two, as the French aristocrat is put on trial for both the crimes of being born to the nobility and for authoring the novel Justine.
Two decades have passed since the film’s release (and just over two centuries since de Sade’s life ended), yet this film feels particularly relevant today. As economic inequality has caused people to call for bringing back the guillotine while sexual liberation is being used to explode oppressive Puritanical systems, it seems like Sade is the sort of movie that deserves more recognition in 2020.
1 The Death of Louis XIV (2016)
This movie is not for everyone. Though the film is a masterpiece in its own right, The Death of Louis XIV is a slow plodding piece whose pacing seems out of sync with modern tastes.
Actor Jean-Pierre Leaud masterfully portrays Louis the Sun King as a man bedridden with gangrene, his magisterial presence undermined by fatigue. The king’s death is considered by many to be one of the events which began the Age of Enlightenment, making the last entry on the list the inciting event behind this entire period of history.
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About The Author
Theo Kogod is a freelance writer. While working as an English teacher in Japan, he helped found the magazine 3 Feet Left as its Resident Writer. Since then, he’s written for various online publications, including CBR, Screen Rant, and The Comics Vault. His published fiction includes the prose superhero story “Typical Heroes” released by Diabolical Plots and the sci-fi story “Antediluvian” in the anthology A Flash of Silver-Green. He currently lives in North Carolina with his spouse, two adorable cats, and an ever-growing book-hoard.
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