Butterflies in the Bedroom: Space, Place and Poetry in Jane Campion’s Bright Star

The period drama may be renowned for its indulgence, but Jane Campion’s portrait of the fragile love affair between Fanny Brawne and John Keats makes the poetic feel almost touchable.

My essay on the minimalistic beauty of Bright Star is available to read on Girls on Tops: Butterflies in the Bedroom: Space, Place and Poetry in Jane Campion’s Bright Star

5 Period Dramas for People Who Hate Period Dramas

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.

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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.

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Orlando (1992)

“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.

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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.

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Caravaggio (1986)

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.

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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.

Petticoats and Politics: Feminism and the Period Drama

Keira Knightley’s career is built upon the period drama; Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina. And those are just the Joe Wright roles.

In a recent interview with Variety she addressed how often she appears in historical roles: “I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped”, she said. “I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed, whereas I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical pieces”. This certainly seems to be true of her career whether she’s playing literary heroines like Elizabeth Bennet or historical figures like Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. She even got to swing a sword in the Pirates franchise. Admittedly, she has sometimes been saddled with the thankless woman-who-supports-male-genius role (see The Imitation Game) but largely she has played complex heroines in period films.

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In their essay All Dressed Up: Costume Drama Loosens its Corset from their book Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema So Mayer highlights that “British ‘women’s cinema’ is still tied, as far as distributors imagine audiences, to the corset strings of what is variously called heritage, costume, period and/or historical drama”. It might not be considered cool but it shouldn’t be ignored. But are period dramas really providing better roles for women? Is feminism permitted in the drawing room or in the chaise and four?

I recently attended a screening of Suffragette at the Royal Albert Hall celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that allowed the first women in Britain the right to vote (that is, women over thirty who held £5 of property or had husbands who did). I first saw the film when it was released in 2015 and it has a harder, more explicitly political edge to it than I remembered. Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai are all familiar cosy BBC costume drama faces and much of the publicity material promoted Meryl Streep’s rather BAFTA-baity cameo appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst. However, in following working class laundry worker Maud (Carey Mulligan) as she joins the movement the film largely shifts attention away from the far more affluent Pankhursts and emphasises the struggles of women with no economic advantages. Through Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), tasked with tracking down and arresting these unruly women, the film makes the point that the Pankhursts and other middle and upper class leaders within the movement were asking women with no financial safety nets to endanger themselves for the cause. “They know how to draw on girls like you”, he says. “Girls without money or prospects who want things to be better. They primp and the preen and they fluff you and they tell you – you are the foot soldiers of the cause. But, you’re only fodder – for a battle none of you can win”. Screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady, Shame) clearly demonstrates an understanding of the exclusionary nature of both the period drama and the way in which certain women’s voices have been erased from history but the film understandably came under fire for its exclusion of women of colour.

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I believe director Sarah Gavron when she says that she “interrogated the written and photographic evidence” and that the only recorded women of colour in the movement in the UK at the time were Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama, both aristocrats. While I understand the filmmakers’ emphasis on working class suffragettes why couldn’t either or both of these women appeared in a Pankhurst style cameo? And is it fundamentally sacrilegious to question how important historical accuracy is here when every character in the film except Pankhurst, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and King George V is fictional?

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But perhaps period dramas are becoming more inclusive, albeit slowly. Amma Asante’s 2014 film Belle tells the real story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British naval officer who is raised as a free gentlewoman by his uncle the 1st Earl of Mansfield. The film was inspired by a painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth Murray that is “unique in British art of the 18th century in depicting a black woman and a white woman as near equals”. Dido’s search for her identity as a biracial woman in a racist society is intertwined with a love affair with an abolitionist and her adoptive father’s ruling in the case of the Zong massacre in which a slave ship’s crew threw living slaves overboard in order to claim the insurance money on their deaths.

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, once attributed to Zoffany

On the surface, Belle might appear to be an elegant film that is rather devoid of passion and fury. Time Out’s Dave Calhoun called it a “good-looking and exceedingly polite film where perhaps a more complex one with less good manners would have been better”. However, I would argue that Belle is surprisingly bold in its redefinition of the period drama as an inclusive, political genre in which the ribbons and romance of Jane Austen’s world are tied to social justice. In this film two gentlewomen having their portraits painted together isn’t an expression of wealth or vanity but a demonstration of history being rewritten to include those erased and marginalised voices. The film is certainly conventional in its form and style, the cinematography never straying from what we might expect to see on a Sunday night BBC drama, but a film that places a biracial woman at the heart of a Austenian story that highlights Britain’s colonial history surely can’t be considered totally conventional. As So Mayer so eloquently phrases it, the film connects “lavish British period drama to the slave-labouring empire that funded eighteenth-century leisure culture”. Of course it’s eighteenth-century leisure culture that gave rise to the novels which provide the mainstays of British period drama.

The film might be gentle enough in its post-colonialist interrogation of the period of British history we most often experience in our living rooms that it doesn’t make the Downton Abbey audience flinch but it remains quietly subversive. Its use of familiar period drama imagery and narrative features (balls aglow with candlelight, the pressure to marry a man in possession of good fortune) identifies the film as a “rigorous deconstruction of costume drama dressed up as a perfect example” (Mayer, once again).

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The film Keira Knightley was promoting when she spoke to Variety about period dramas is Colette, an upcoming biopic of writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, author of Gigi. The film explores how her work was published and celebrated under her controlling husband’s name as well as her scandalous affair with Mathilde “Missy” de Morny. How transgressive the film really is remains to be seen but perhaps Belle, alongside films like Lady Macbeth, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and upcoming films like Mary Queen of Scots and Ophelia that retells Hamlet from his doomed lover’s perspective will continue to demonstrate that period films can be genuinely subversive. When I asked the filmmakers behind Suffragette about Keira Knightley’s comments writer Abi Morgan spoke about how women are more often allowed to be heroines in period films but also that she is currently working on several projects with female protagonists of multiple genres. 

It feels like I’ve written the phrase “perhaps after the recent commercial and/or critical success of [insert title of commercially and/or critically successful female-led film here] we will begin to see a lasting change” countless times over the past few years. But for now it does seem clear that the period drama, often with brilliant women behind the camera, is a genre ideal for interrogating the position of women’s voices throughout history and by extension society today.