From Bridgerton to The Queen’s Gambit, several masterfully produced period pieces have arrived on our screens, enamoring us with tantalizing depictions of the past. And despite what critics think about LGBTQ period films (we see you, SNL, with your “Lesbian Period-Drama” skit), we are lucky to have a wealth of period pieces starring LGBTQ protagonists. Whether you’re searching for a queer history lesson or just a fun period romance to escape into, OutSmart has the perfect picks for you.
Written and directed by the boundary-pushing Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima, this samurai-themed period piece is a dreamlike exploration of desire and masculinity among the mythologized sect of Shinsengumi Japanese warriors. Sozaburo Kano, the fictional protagonist, is a young man with bewitching good looks who, after joining the samurai ranks, turns many of his fellow soldiers’ heads with a complicated web of secret affairs and violent rivalries that threaten to topple the entire sect. As with any Oshima work, the interesting visuals and symbolically charged narrative will hook viewers, regardless of their familiarity with Japanese history.
Perfect for fans of: My Beautiful Laundrette and Querelle
Based on the incredible true story of two women whose legal marriage in 1901 made headlines, this Spanish film seeks to reconstruct the lives of these queer pioneers despite the many details lost to time. Presented entirely in atmospheric black-and-white, the story follows the pair’s meeting in their youth, their struggles as a same-gender couple (with Elisa disguising herself as a man for many years in order to avoid persecution), and their escape from Spain after news of their marriage was made public. There is no shame in shedding a couple of tears at the end of this emotionally charged epic.
Perfect for fans of: Philomena and The Color Purple
One of the quintessential LGBTQ-activism films of the 20th century, this British drama offers modern audiences a look at the politically charged upheavals of the 1960s. The film unfurls the gripping mystery of a blackmailer who targets high-ranking, closeted gay men, showcasing the failures of government systems that oppress rather than protect citizens. Released six years before the UK decriminalized homosexual acts, this film has been credited with swaying public opinion on the issue and aiding the progression LGBTQ rights throughout the nation.
Perfect for fans of: The Boys in the Band and Milk
Now considered a contemporary classic in the queer film canon, this upbeat story depicts the unlikely alliance between a poor mining community and a group of LGBTQ activists in Thatcher’s Britain. Based almost entirely on true events, the film draws you in with its quirky cast of characters, attention to 1980s period detail, and a beautifully developed emotional core. Grim topics such as discrimination, poverty, and police brutality are presented through a serious yet optimistic lens that celebrates LGBTQ civil-rights progress.
Perfect for fans of: Edge of Seventeen and Beginners
Based on one of the best-known novels by lesbian author Virginia Woolf, this ’90s film faithfully depicts the immortal life of the eponymous gender-bending aristocrat. Played by Tilda Swinton, who is in top form, Orlando is a young nobleman from 16th-century England who is mysteriously gifted with the ability to stop aging, and thus lives to experience the fall of monarchs, the evolution of politics and fashion, the horrors of war and, most importantly, the heartbreak experienced by both men and women. With beautiful sets and immaculate costuming, Orlando is the queer-led period piece that raised the bar not only for works dealing with LGBTQ history, but for all period pieces that followed.
Perfect for fans of: The Hunger and Yentl
Considered to be lesbian filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s finest work yet, this French film is a masterclass in cinematography and visual storytelling. Recounting the chance meeting of an 18th-century portraitist and a young noblewoman about to be married, the pair finds themselves falling in love despite their differences in status and their dwindling time together. Famously snubbed at the 2020 Academy Awards, the film quickly gained a following among art-cinema and queer-cinema fans alike, further cementing Sciamma and her work into the public consciousness.
Perfect for fans of: Blue Is the Warmest Colour and But I’m a Cheerleader!
The debut film of out writer/director Christopher Munch, this simple yet captivating experimental film delves into the complex real-life relationship between Beatles member John Lennon and his manager, Brian Epstein. Set in the period during their actual 1963 trip to Spain, Munch carefully blends anecdotal evidence and his own speculation over exactly what happened between Epstein, an openly gay man who had previously expressed his attraction to Lennon, and the singer-songwriter who (despite being weeks away from marrying the mother of his first child) left it all behind to be alone with him in Barcelona for two weeks. Similar to Elisa & Marcela, the black-and-white film feels like an intimate look at a true story that has stayed buried for far too long.
Perfect for fans of: A Single Man and My Own Private Idaho
This faithful adaptation depicts the rule of the real-life Queen Krystina of Sweden, from her ascension to the throne at age 6 to her shocking abdication at 28. As with any historical figure, the veracity of the accounts of her life varies, but she is considered by most modern historians as an early lesbian pioneer. Her documented “intimate” relationship with noblewoman Ebba Sparre forms the core of the film, even though the plot focuses more on Krystina’s struggles as a monarch due to her gender, age, and sexuality. LGBTQ historical figures are rarely depicted with such detail and emotional punch, so for that reason alone, this film is worth a watch.
Perfect for fans of: The Favorite and Maurice
Adapted from the heart-wrenching West End play, Bent depicts the persecution and imprisonment of gay men in Nazi Germany. Equal parts drama and romance, the story follows Max, a gay Jewish man whose intersecting identities have put a big target on his back, but who finds love, admiration, and solace with kindred spirits in the face of hatred, violence, and imprisonment. Packed to the brim with talent, and carefully crafted by the filmmakers, this is the film to watch if you’re in the mood for a true tear-jerker.
Perfect for fans of: Angels in America and Dallas Buyers Club
Starring the multitalented Queen Latifah, this biopic of the iconic bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith delivers a complex look at her rise to fame. While she is remembered as an icon and early 20th-century pioneer in the music industry who navigated racial tensions, sexism, and personal challenges with her family, friends, and lovers. Directed by lesbian director Dee Rees, this bittersweet HBO original film takes the time to flesh out Smith not only as a singer, but as a complex figure with her own triumphs and struggles.
Perfect for fans of: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Cabaret