Though the words “Merchant Ivory” may have some people thinking of stiff upper-lipped prudish classic novel adaptations, fans of the genre know better. The period-drama is ripe for sexual tension with massive, passionate payoff.
Here are five of the steamiest period-drama love scenes that we just keep coming back to, over and over again.
1. Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas in The English Patient
It swept the Oscars in 1996, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress with its story of star-crossed lovers Katharine Clifton and the mysterious Count Lazlo (played by Ralph Fiennes), who turns up years later as the mysterious burn victim—“the English patient”—at the end of WWII. Katharine and Lazlo meet on a mapping expedition of Egypt, but alas, Katharine (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) is married to Mr. Darcy. I mean, Colin Firth. Anyway, she’s married. But the sexual tension between Katharine and Lazlo is so immediate and so intense that neither can resist. Though many cite their first romp, in a bathtub, as “the” sex scene of the film, my personal favorite has always been the scene which takes place in a hallway outside a Christmas Party sing-a-long of “Silent Night.”
“Swoon,” Lazlo tells Katherine. “I’ll catch you.”
2. James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley in Atonement
Robbie is the son of the groundskeeper of Cecilia’s massive family estate. It is 1935, and the gulf between the two, in terms of class, is unlikely to be breached. But Cecilia loves Robbie with a passion that can only occur in impossible love. Finally, after a crude letter (of Robbie’s to Cecilia, never meant to be read) is delivered, the two find themselves finally alone in the family library. Keira Knightley, in a stunning, clinging emerald green dress, tells Robbie she loves him. In one of literature’s most explosive library sex scenes, the two finally consummate their relationship, only to unwittingly set Robbie’s devastating demise into motion.
3. Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coulloc’h in Lady Chatterley
The two actors in this 2006 French adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s notoriously sexual novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover were working with excellent source material that had been banned when the novel first appeared. Constance’s husband is paralyzed, and their sex life is lackluster. When she embarks on an affair with her groundskeeper (what is it with groundskeepers?) it is, in more ways than one, her sexual awakening. Despite many adaptations for film and television, this film captures the raw sexuality of Lawrence’s novel.
4. Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander in A Royal Affair
In this true story of the 18th century royalty in Denmark, the gorgeous Alicia Vikander plays unhappy queen to an oafish king. When a dark and handsome doctor (ENTER: MADS MIKKELSEN) is enlisted to help the king control his impulsive behavior, it’s inevitable that the Queen finds a sympathetic companion . . . and more. The sexual tension comes to a head during a masked ball, where Vikander finally hands Mikkelsen the key to her room. The rest is (true) history.
5. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina
Period-drama queen Keira Knightley breathed new life into Tolstoy’s classic heroine Anna Karenina in the 2012 film adaptation with the help of her costar, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I suppose dancing at a ball was the period-drama equivalent of locking eyes at a crowded bar, because when Vronsky lays eyes on Anna we know it’s just a matter of time before the two get together, and boy, do they ever. Vronsky and Anna are both wild and desperate, and the way he looks at her (through Johnson’s piercingly gorgeous blue eyes) would make any woman want to jump into bed with him.
Side note: IRL, Taylor-Johnson is married to Sam Taylor-Johnson, who directed him in 2009’s Nowhere Boy. Despite the fact that she is 23 years older than him, they have two children together. He even took her last name. Do you need any other reasons to love him? Nope.