50 masterpieces that will make you cry
There’s something so cathartic about having a good weep, isn’t there? Purposefully searching for a ‘songs to cry to’ playlist, cranking up the Joni Mitchell and settling in for a night of slightly self-indulgent bawling – we’ve all been there. It does, somehow, end up making us feel better.
But it’s not just Adele and Joni that can nudge those tear ducts to open the floodgates. We’ve enlisted the help of the Telegraph’s top critics to decipher exactly which books, films, plays, songs and even ballets and operas induce the most heartfelt sobs.
From tragic war memoirs to soul-shattering tales of love, loss and betrayal, there won’t be a dry eye in (your) house.
50 masterpieces to make you cry
FILM by Tim Robey
Dark Victory (1939)
Come to this drama for Bette Davis as a hard-drinking Long Island socialite, cocooned in a lie that her brain surgery has been successful. Stay for the devastation when she realises it hasn’t. Conquering fear before total blindness claims her, she’s at her shattering best.
Watership Down (1978)
To fend off the terrors of the countryside, rabbits need all their speed and cunning, while an audience is regularly left in bits. The ending gnaws especially at the heart, when the Black Rabbit visits elderly Hazel and lures him peacefully to the afterlife.
ET the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
A long goodbye, preceded by a wonderfully curious long hello. Steven Spielberg seems to have a direct line to the youthful unconscious – where the imagination goes to soar. No wonder ET’s departure, an adieu to all our childhoods, is such a wipeout.
The Dead (1987)
James Joyce’s greatest short story became John Huston’s swansong: he directed it aged 80 from a wheelchair, tethered to oxygen. What a beautiful valediction it is. The shivery ending has Gabriel (Donal McCann) beholding the snow, as it falls over Ireland’s forgotten graves.
Nobody does stiff upper lip crumbling into tears better than Anthony Hopkins. So devastating in The Father, it was a technique honed in Howards End (1992), then perfected in this shattering biopic of CS Lewis, who must reconcile himself to childlike vulnerability when, late in life, he finds – then loses – love.
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Double wedlock for the Dashwood sisters? It seems impossible, and yet through the elegant working out of Jane Austen’s plot – and Emma Thompson’s total sympathy with it in both her screenplay and performance – the ending is a heaven-sent happily-ever-after. The moment when the penny drops is teary bliss.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Traffic lights in rain: before they go green, Meryl Streep has one last chance to dash to where Clint Eastwood is standing, sodden and bereft. Eastwood’s soulful account of a broken-off love affair is a huge improvement on the book on which it’s based.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Steven Soderbergh’s film is a rare kind of feel-good sobfest, buoyed up by the landslide success Erin (Julia Roberts) secures for the victims of corporate neglect. The shock of Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger), who bursts into grateful tears, is one huge trigger; as is Albert Finney’s last act of mischief.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
This one’s a monumental downer, the most ambitious film Charlie Kaufman has ever made – and the most piercing to the soul. It orchestrates a symphony of regrets, missed opportunities and time slipping through Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fingers.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
“Thanks, guys.” Such a simple tribute from Andy, but it is the moment in the whole, emotionally rich quartet that’s likeliest to bring on the sniffles. After all his toys have been through, not least escaping the furnace in this one, Andy will never know what he truly owes them.
TV by Chris Bennion
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
In the greatest rug-pull in sitcom history, 24 madcap episodes came to a close with a powerful anti-war message as Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and co go over the top, the screen turning to a field of poppies as they fall.
Lost for Words (1999)
Deric Longden’s heartbreaking account of his elderly mother’s slide into dementia starred Pete Postlethwaite and Thora Hird. A Bafta-winning Hird is wonderful, but it is Postlethwaite’s Deric, utterly lost as he watches his mother dying before his eyes, who will break your heart.
Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor (2010)
Sure, it’s a little bit of historical wish fulfilment, but the scene in which the Doctor (Matt Smith) takes Van Gogh (Tony Curran) – failed, penniless, unloved – to the modern-day Louvre, to see the fame and impact of his work, is a cosmic lump-in-throat moment, scripted by Richard Curtis.
Before Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall wrote this heart-rending account of the 1958 Munich air disaster. Scenes showing the Busby Babes in their youthful glory, before it is cruelly snuffed out, are as emotional as the plane crash itself.
Long Lost Family (2011)
A documentary series that reunites estranged relatives, this is designed to make you cry – and it rarely fails. Any episode will do, but try S9 E6, in which Martin Smith discovers why his birth mother gave him up for adoption – then meets her for the first time.
The Virtues (2019)
The whole series is a masterpiece, but it is the opening episode of Shane Meadows’s drama that will have you in floods, as Stephen Graham’s wayward alcoholic discovers his ex-wife is emigrating to Australia with their young son.
It’s a Sin (2021)
Russell T Davies conjured up the full horror of the 1980s Aids epidemic not by focusing on death – though there was plenty of that – but by shining a beautiful, glittering mirrorball on life, love and friendship.
THEATRE by Dominic Cavendish
King Lear (1606)
Shakespeare’s heartbroken monarch enters the final scene carrying his youngest daughter’s corpse, madly clinging to a hope she might recover. It is the purest encapsulation of the agony of grief: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/ And thou no breath at all?”
Uncle Vanya (1899)
“We shall patiently bear the trials we’re sent and when our time comes we shall die with resignation.” Lonely and unrequited in love, Chekhov’s sweet-natured heroine, Sonya, addresses her inconsolably wretched uncle in the play’s closing speech. It seems to sum up human sadness and stoicism.
The Browning Version (1948)
Terence Rattigan’s stuffy protagonist, a classics master on the verge of leaving his school after 18 years, his future uncertain, is engulfed by tears when a pupil gives him a going-away present (a Robert Browning translation of Aeschylus). So great is his self-loathing that this act of kindness breaks him – and us.
Anyone who has felt childhood neglect will respond to the ache of the early weepy in Lionel Bart’s masterpiece, Where Is Love? What makes it poignant is that we can’t kid ourselves that the cruelty meted out on Dickens’s orphan, cast into an undertaker’s basement, is truly the stuff of yesteryear.
Les Misérables (1985)
Heart strings are tugged throughout this musical epic, but you would need a heart of stone not to crack in the first half, when poor Fantine, cast on to the streets, lets her anguish out in I Dreamed a Dream.
Sea Wall (2009)
Simon Stephens’s short, unforgettable monologue – first performed, to blinking-eyed, grief-throttled perfection, by Andrew Scott – guides us towards an evocation of every parent’s worst nightmare: a day of splashing in the sea, then the world turned upside down.
The Inheritance (2018)
Matthew Lopez’s two-part American epic confronts the spectre of the 1980s Aids era – quite literally so at the end of the first half, when its hero, Eric, arrives at the upstate New York farmhouse where sick young men were tended in their dying days; their “ghosts” amiably introduce themselves and the effect is shattering.
BOOKS by Helen Brown
Silas Marner by George Eliot (1861)
An outcast weaver hardens his heart, only to have it melted by a “golden” child – adorable Eppie – whose mother has died in the snow. The lurch in the gut comes when Eppie’s deceitful gentleman-father threatens to reclaim her.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-69)
Yes, yes. It’s all terribly sad when the saintly Beth dies. But many of us shed more hot tears of frustration for her ambitious sister Jo, who resists the pressure to conform.
Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1981)
War. Mental illness. Child abuse. Racism. Bereavement. Magorian leads young readers through so much potentially preventable horror in her tale of a troubled evacuee billeted with a country curmudgeon, but it’s the transformative power of love that makes them cry.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
In constant orbit around the idea of wasted lives, Kazuo Ishiguro admits he writes “the same book over and over”. But he explored his theme most poignantly in this Booker-winning tale of a butler’s repressed love. We cry because he cannot.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)
The quirky wit of Atkinson’s debut novel about a family “genetically disposed to having accidents” lulls us into sharing her narrator’s keep-calm-and-crack-a-joke attitude to random deaths and daily disappointments. But there’s nothing funny about her heartbreaking secret.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
Sending hope soaring above the barren battlefields of Afghanistan, Hosseini tugs at the strings of father-son bonds and male friendships. It’s a novel about awful mistakes and how a yearning for forgiveness cannot be buried “because it claws its way out”.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)
Strange and soothing by turns, grief hums throughout this retelling of the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, from the bubonic plague. The story allows us to feel the sorrows of the current pandemic at a familiar-but-historical remove.
POETRY by Tristram Fane Saunders
Dirge Without Music by Edna St Vincent Millay (1928)
Written in the shadow of the Great War: “Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind/ [...] I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”
The Thermal Stair by WS Graham (1970)
An elegy to a friend: “Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?/ Remember me wherever you listen from.”
The Thread by Don Paterson (2003)
“They caught him by the thread of his one breath/ and pulled him up,” Paterson writes of Jamie, his son, who almost died at birth. “Now the thread/ is holding all of us.”
POP MUSIC by Neil McCormick
In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)
The great crooner’s turbulent, short-lived second marriage to Ava Gardner resulted in this moody, melancholic masterpiece. Sinatra offers the perversely heroic sound of a man trying to tough out an unbearable loss, from the hopelessly longing title track, the brooding What Is This Thing Called Love to the unconvincing denial of I Get Along Without You Very Well. This is what heartache sounds like.
Blue by Joni Mitchell (1971)
“I am on a lonely road and I am travelling,” announces the dazzling Canadian singer-songwriter on the opening track of her absolute masterpiece, a probing, philosophical, minutely detailed examination of the tension between the urge for freedom and the comforting restrictions of loving relationships. Joni chooses freedom, leaving heartbreak and sorrow in her wake, much of it hers. “I made my baby cry,” she confesses on the magical River.
Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons (1974)
There are not many sounds sweeter and sadder than a doomed Gram Parsons and a young Emmylou Harris singing in tight, tender harmony on Love Hurts. Released four months after his death from a drug overdose, Parsons’s gorgeous final album is a bittersweet country rock landmark about the price of love.
21 by Adele (2011)
“Turn my sorrow into treasured gold” could be the British singer’s motto, a line roared with defiance on Rolling in the Deep. Adele Adkins has made a world-conquering career out of relationship problems. Her second album is the motherlode, in which that giant voice runs the gamut of heartbroken emotions on songs of anger, regret, loneliness, despair, self-healing and forgiveness. Get a full box of tissues ready for the vocal fireworks of the closing track, Someone Like You. “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
After Hours by The Weeknd (2020)
In the aftermath of his on-again, off-again relationship with supermodel Bella Hadid, Canadian pop provocateur Abel Tesfaye conjured up this lovelorn, sci-fi breakup album. Imagine Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours transposed to a space station orbiting Saturn, only with way more sex and drugs.
CLASSICAL MUSIC by Ivan Hewett
16th string quartet, 3rd movement by Beethoven (1826)
That special power of music to be happy and sad all at once is beautifully caught in the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet. In the middle, the glowing major key of the opening turns darkly minor, but it’s the turn back to major which really gets you.
E minor Prelude for piano by Chopin (1830s)
How does music become sad? By drooping down like a weeping willow, is one answer. The melody of Chopin’s famously heartbreaking prelude at first resists the downward pull in the harmony, but in the end submits to it, tragically.
Nuits d’EtE no 5 Au CimetiEre by Berlioz (1856)
Dusk falls, a dove sings next to a tomb and the poet hears the sorrowing voice of his lost beloved in the bird’s call. If the tranced beauty, yearning and resignation in Berlioz’s song doesn’t floor you, nothing will.
5th Symphony, 2nd movement by Tchaikovsky (1888)
The low strings seem to come from the grave, but then things appear to lighten and the lovely horn melody is like a shaft of sunlight. And yet it seems sadder than ever – a mystery only music can capture.
Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen by Mahler (1901)
The most exquisite song from Mahler’s early cycle Rückert-lieder is about the happiness of letting go of all human attachments: “I am lost to the world.” But the music tells us that letting go is sad as well.
OPERA by Nicholas Kenyon
Dido and Aeneas by Purcell (1689)
“When I am laid in earth”: Dido’s lament in Purcell’s short opera – sung by such greats as Jessye Norman and Janet Baker – is built over a hypnotically repeating bass line, reaching the tragic climax: “Remember me, but ah forget my fate.” This cuts to the heart of our mortality and we weep for a life lost through love and longing.
La traviata by Verdi (1853)
Violetta is a courtesan who gives lavish parties, but is afflicted with consumption. As she sickens, she wins our sympathy, and by the end submits to God’s mercy; we weep for her vision of the happiness that might have been hers. Maria Callas recorded the part unforgettably.
La bohème by Puccini (1896)
The archetypal opera weepie, as the innocent love between the penniless poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi blossoms and then is cut short. At the close, Rodolfo does not notice that Mimi’s life has slipped away; then his anguish overcomes him.
BALLET by Mark Monahan
A tale of infatuation, infidelity and redemption through love, this gothic-romantic masterpiece ends with Giselle’s ghost – having saved the life of her errant beau – melting for ever into the morning mist as he mourns alone at her grave. How not to weep like an infant?
Romeo and Juliet (1965)
Of the countless responses to Prokofiev’s magisterial score, Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography for the Royal Ballet remains the gold standard. On the right evening, with the right cast, it is the most lyrically, grippingly heart-rending spectacle you are ever likely to see on stage.
No apologies for including a second MacMillan piece in this list. Tragedy stalks this tale of a feckless courtesan from the opening seconds. And the final scene, as the disgraced, violated Manon sees her previous, glamorous existence flash before her eyes and then dies in her unwavering lover’s arms, packs an emotional punch that is almost indecent.