Period dramas get a bad rap. For many, they’re fusty and elitist, strangling themselves with ribbons as they favour decadence over substance.
Even as early as 1991 critics were beginning to get fed up with crinolines and crumpets. The films of Merchant-Ivory were a primary target. In the June 1991 issue of Sight and Sound Craig Cairns lambasted them: “we are indulged with a perfection of style designed to deny everything beyond the self-contained world the characters inhabit.”
But films set in the past aren’t all elegantly repressive, and they’re not always British either. In Sexuality and the Heritage Claire Monk coined the term post-heritage, referring to period films with “an overt concern with sexuality and gender, particularly non-dominant gender and sexual identities.” She later expanded the definition to include an “aesthetic self-differentiation from the authenticity…of the 1980s heritage film.”
2019’s awards season has seen a trio of post-heritage films. Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliciously nasty The Favourite with its lesbian sex and nude pomegranate-throwing certainly qualifies, along with the defiantly queer Colette and the rather forced feminist re-telling of the Mary Queen of Scots story. The Favourite in particular has been lauded as “a period drama for people who hate period dramas.” But the post-heritage drama is nothing new.
Here are five examples of period films that take an alternative approach to the genre.
The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Peter Greenaway’s deeply odd film is The Favourite’s most obvious bedfellow. Power, sex and death are closely entwined here, and the film’s towering wigs for the men and lace headpieces for the women have been cited as inspiration by Favourite costume designer Sandy Powell.
Set in rural Wiltshire in 1694, arrogant draughtsman Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is hired by Mrs Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) to produce drawings of her country estate, which he agrees to only in return for her satisfaction of his sexual pleasure. Neville soon becomes embroiled in a murder-mystery, but don’t expect any kid of resolution. The plot sounds straightforward and the camera work is formal and poised, but this film is sly and enigmatic.
Accompanied by Michael Nyman’s unforgettable score that refashions Henry Purcell, The Draughtsman’s Contract is as sumptuous as it is strange.
“She’s lived for 400 years and hardly aged a day; but, because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice.” Orlando is probably the definitive post-heritage film. Based on Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel, it’s an anarchic, lavish romp, in which Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) grants the young nobleman Orlando (Tilda Swinton) eternal life, and seemingly the ability to change gender.
Potter traverses hundreds of years of history, spectacularly bringing each era to life. There’s a sense of transcendent, mythic grandeur, as if Orlando is a legend or a folk tale we can only half remember. But at the same time, Orlando’s direct address to the camera feels modern and immediate. Lyrical and witty, it’s a provocative feast for the eyes. Like its eponymous protagonist, Orlando is beautiful and unknowable.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Don’t be fooled by the floaty white dresses, Picnic is more like a nightmare than a dream. Its beauty is sickly and rotten. Based on Joan Lindsay’s novel and a major influence on Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, it’s still one of the most strikingly subversive films about girlhood.
On Valentines Day in 1900, a party of teenage girls from a remote Australian boarding school set out to spend the day at the imposing Hanging Rock, a dormant volcano. The sun beats down, their watches stop at twelve o’clock, and three girls and one teacher climb to the summit and completely vanish.
Framed as pseudo-history, there’s a sense of white colonisation being swallowed whole by the landscape. Headmistress Mrs Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) tries her best to civilise her charges, but on the edge of the wilderness nothing is easily tamed.
Like The Draughtsman’s Contract, Derek Jarman’s loose biopic of the baroque artist is another surreal vision of history. Vibrant yet minimalist, every scene looks like it could be framed and placed on a wall next to any Caravaggio painting.
Unsurprisingly for the avant-garde artist and filmmaker, Jarman leaves historical authenticity at the door. While he carefully recreates many of Caravaggio’s paintings, the film features several playful anachronisms. A calculator, a typewriter and a neon sign are postmodern winks to the camera.
Art, sex, madness and the hypocrisy of religion entwine. The film features the first screen appearances of Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean, who play the lovers Lena and Ranuccio, who both vie for Caravaggio (Nigel Terry)’s affection too. All three of them seem to glow with vitality.
The Piano (1993)
The Piano, for which Jane Campion became the first (and still the only) female winner of the Palme d’Or, was so impactful it prompted a resurgence in the study of period costume in film.
Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is shipped across the world along with her daughter and beloved piano to marry New Zealand colonial landowner Stewart (Sam Neill). Rebelling against society by choosing not to speak, her piano acts as her voice. The image of Ada in restrictive Victorian dress standing on the wild shoreline of New Zealand encapsulates the film’s themes of “civilisation” versus wilderness, female repression versus freedom.
As beguiling and complex as it was in 1993, The Piano is an antidote to every scene of inert drawing room tea-drinking. Despite scenes of full frontal nudity, the most erotically charged moment is forester Baines (Harvey Keitel) gently touching Ada’s knee through a tiny hole in her stocking. Period costume has never held such symbolic power.