When the term ‘period drama’ is mentioned, images of corsets, bonnets, pastoral landscapes and oceans of tea often spring to mind. It’s a genre of film/ television that is irrevocably associated with British cinema, however in recent years there has been a re-moulding – or even spring cleaning – of some of these iconic (through frankly, tired) tropes. The recent release of The Favourite exhibits this, a ‘perfectly cut diamond of a movie’ brought to life by Yorgos Lanthimos – it shuns the reserved quality of most period pieces in favour of bawdy, raunchy, exquisite chaos. It starts kicking you and does not stop… (in the best possible way). A revenge comedy, a grotesque historic fable with bite – imagine Tale of Tales (2015) meets Mean Girls (2004). With a fish-eye camera lens applied to certain shots, it gives the impression that we’re peering into a goldfish bowl – simultaneously mesmerizing and isolating, the characters exist in a world warped by desire and power. The three women at the centre (Coleman, Weisz and Stone) are the crowning jewels of this masterpiece, all delivering exceptional performances – honourable mention also must go to the hilarious Nicholas Hoult, often echoing Tim Roth in Rob Roy (1995). It’s these components combined that make for a delicious, unique take on a stale genre, Lanthimos lending the period drama a new flavour via manipulation of its typical visual aesthetic and tone.
Over time, period pieces seem to have collated the aura of something untouchable and delicate – as if to ruffle its (often very elaborate) feathers would be to disrespectfully shake up it’s embedded genteel tradition, carrying the message; “If you want to be unsettled or watch people behaving recklessly, go watch a modern-day thriller or horror”. However, this is not always the case, as displayed by certain projects in the past, for example, TV series The Tudors (2007 – 2010) and The Borgias (2011 – 2013). Aptly put by Natalie Dormer (portraying Anne Boleyn in the former), ‘It’s everything a period drama shouldn’t be – it’s super sexy, raw and violent’. Dormer’s perception exemplifies how the genre shouldn’t have to be confined to portraying a precious, nostalgic replica of a certain time. The era a film is set within should add personality to the story, not swamp all plot and originality in frills and polite etiquette. The films I’ve chosen to look at in this article display just this, the directors refusing to allow the period setting to overshadow the raw energy and vibrancy of its characters and narrative.
The Piano (1993)
Written and directed by auteur Jane Campion The Piano is majestic, moving and unflinchingly bold. Set in the 1850s, it depicts Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute mail-order bride and her young daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving in New Zealand, embarking on a new life with husband, Alisdair (Sam Neill). Ada is an excellent piano player, this being her only means of self-expression; she is therefore distraught when Alisdair refuses to rescue her piano from the beach she arrived on. George Baines (Harvey Keitel) then takes the piano for his own but offers to sell it back to Ada in return for piano lessons. However, this arrangement soon takes an erotic turn, their affair ultimately having life-altering, gruesome consequences. Simultaneously lyrical and primal, passionate and subdued, The Piano is a story of desire, memorable in its ability to be both ethereal and shockingly brutal.
It refrains from being a typical period drama in many ways, the first being the immediate contrast of Ada and her daughter to their new surroundings. They appear like Victorian ghosts, pale and sombre in heavy black gowns, a striking clash against the unruly wilderness of New Zealand’s west coast. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography is stunning, capturing a world of misty, sodden green and mud, dampened by rain and sea air. The use of colour has an almost dream-like effect, as though it were a snow-globe world of silence ‘where there hath been no sound’ forever submerged – perhaps foreshadowing the gloomy underwater grave that presents itself at the film’s close. It also lends the film’s tone an atmosphere of beautiful serenity, reflecting our protagonist’s state of being. However, Michael Nyman’s iconic score balances this, mirroring Ada’s emotions through her piano playing, soaring, elevated and sublime, we’re able to feel everything she does as she plays. There’s also abstract elements that make The Piano unique to the period drama genre; such as when a drawing of a man in a top hat suddenly appears onscreen and bursts into flames during Paquin’s impassioned storytelling, recounting the tale of her father’s death. It is often surreal too, with its depiction of otherworldly images, such as Ada’s beloved piano marooned on the beach, half sinking, surrounded by shallow grey waves. Furthermore, it’s a strikingly original story, a masterpiece; deeply romantic and daringly poetic, its poignancy still holding up 25 years after its release – it earns above and beyond the title of a modern classic.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
Penned by Emily Bronte (writing under a male pseudonym) in 1847, Wuthering Heights went on to become a literary classic, despite the intense controversy surrounding its original publication. Some critics were truly revolted by it, one even stating, “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” Clearly Bronte was challenging whimsy period drama clichés before the foundations had even been lain! It’s a tough read, but nevertheless, a beguiling and transporting one – to call it ‘ahead of its time’ is an understatement. Fittingly, visionary director Andrea Arnold follows suit, shaking up tradition and rattling expectation by applying a strikingly contemporary visual style to Bronte’s gothic masterpiece. Arnold understands the sensory power of this book and translates it to the screen with stark confrontational force, or as Indiewire aptly observes, ‘if finds both the grace and brutality of the story and brings it kicking and screaming into the twenty first century’.
The film chooses to depict only a segment of the whole novel; exploring the close bond that develops between mischievous childhood friends, Cathy and Heathcliff, that ultimately culminates in devastating romantic tragedy as the years go by. It’s an adaptation that serves as a slice of life with an almost ‘fly on the wall’ feel – the viewer is a ghost that haunts the story. This is a testament to how effective Arnold’s directorial style is; the implementation of disorientating camera movement forcing the audience to feel as though they exist amidst the action rather than just passively watching it unfold. This is aided by the extreme close-ups of rich detail and textures, whether it be the smears of mud on Cathy’s face or the buzzing wings of eerie yellow moths. The turbulent, brooding Yorkshire landscape becomes a character in itself, completely alive as it wails, roars and cries, poignantly taking the place of dialogue much of the time. It’s a film of volatile emotion, so much so that words would seem futile and feeble in comparison; the enormity of the protagonists’ feelings only being comparable with the ravaging forces of nature around them. There is also no score accompanying either, the only sounds being natural ones, subtle and stirring, like blood dripping into a pan or wind rustling a horse’s mane. However, perhaps one of the most memorable elements about this adaptation is the unflinching, raw chemistry between the two leads. Violent and passionate, both characters are products of their environment and we see this as they wrestle in the mud as young kids and when an older Cathy pins Heathcliff to the ground, her healed boot pressing into his cheek. They’re reckless and harsh with one another – an alien image to a typical period drama. It also shows savvy casting by having Kaya Scodelario portray older Cathy, as she is predominantly known for playing cool ‘Effie’ in infamous TV teen-drama, Skins – as though Arnold is highlighting that the young lovers at the centre of this Victorian classic are not so dissimilar from ourselves; that teen infatuation endures. Overall, Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights attacks with vicious contemporary flare, not only complimenting the torment and darkness within Bronte’s novel, but electrifying it. Thus, it strips away all cliché and leaves us with a coarse but tender love story, a tale of splintering ferocity and intimacy.
Both richly seductive and unwaveringly hostile, this one will remain with you. Written and directed by Cate Shortland, Lore was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars 2013, but frankly should have won, let alone been nominated. It follows the collapse of the Nazi regime after the allied invasion, teenage Lore and her affluent family fleeing to the Black Forrest, now on the run due to her father being a high-ranking Nazi official. Eventually Lore and her siblings are abandoned by their parents and, alone, must embark upon a gruelling and dangerous trek across Germany in order to reunite with lost family in Hamburg. However, along the way they befriend an unlikely companion, a Jewish ex-concentration camp prisoner, ‘Thomas’, who insists on guiding them to their destination. Thus, Lore faces a crippling identity crisis as everything she has been taught comes into question as she and Thomas gradually, though reluctantly, fall for one another.
Lore offers a sumptuous cinematic experience, every sensation and emotion amplified by palpable mise en scène. It’s deeply intimate and almost overwhelmingly affecting at times. An echo of Andrea Arnold’s work, Shortland gifts us with an array of stunning images captured through extreme close-ups, so much so it awakens senses beyond sight and sound. As we’re presented with a devastated land of opulent colour, we grow to realise this imagery symbolises the rapid decay of the children’s innocence; the remains of their youth marred by ruin and ultimately, the truth that befalls them. This is furthered by ominously whimsical moments, such as Lore’s little sister skip-rope jumping in slow motion inside a derelict, bombed out house. Its images such as this that reinforce the purpose of depicting this story through children’s eyes; a ghostly reminder of the unravelling fairy tale that was promised to Aryan children by a corrupt party they naively worshipped.
It’s intensely graphic at points and not always easy to stomach, however it’s clearly Shortland’s intention that we empathise deeply with Lore’s distress and trauma as her political awakening grows more concrete. The film is accelerated like a lit-match to petrol by Saskia Rosendahl’s understated but fiery performance. The sensuality that underlies her scenes with Kai Malina (Thomas) lend the film a moving vulnerability that balances out the unrelenting harshness that dominates most of the narrative. Lore, therefore, is a film of dazzling amalgamation, a bewitching cautionary account of lust, betrayal and denial. It fluctuates between fragile beauty and brutish realism, offering a startlingly fresh perspective on the Second World War and subsequently, the multitude of lives it affected on both sides. Furthermore, the power of this tale is maximised by Shortland’s savvy filtering of a historic time period through a deliciously contemporary lens. Ultimately, it challenges the notion of maintaining the stuffy restraint and detachment equated with period drama because although these stories take place long ago, it’s clear we’ve hardly changed at all.
by Angel Lloyd
Angel Lloyd graduated from University of York in 2018 with a degree in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance. Admittedly always felt like a traitor as film stole my heart long ago. Wish and hope to become a screenwriter/playwright. Graduated from BFI Scriptwriting Academy in 2015 and Northern Stars Documentary Academy in 2014. Much love and adoration for Carrie Fisher, Julie Taymor and Andrea Arnold. Soft spot for Baz Luhrmann glamour and Tim Burton wackiness. Favourite films include Withnail and I, Edward Scissorhands, Nowhere Boy and Moulin Rouge.
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