From Yorgos Lanthimos’ highly-anticipated The Favourite to Greta Gerwig’s star-studded interpretation of Little Women, 2018 will be the year of period pieces. In anticipation of these films, the Much Ado crew has put our heads together and shared some of our favorite period pieces. They span genres, directors, and countries, but one thing is for sure: We are a group who loves a good period piece.
Atonement (2007) dir. Joe Wright
I’m not here to introduce you to a hidden gem of historical fiction about a marginalized population or oft-ignored perspective – I’m here to talk about Atonement. Yes, the Ian McEwan adaptation starring Keira Knightley and directed by Joe Wright. The combination of those three names yields a period piece so period piece-y, it’s quintessential genre viewing.
This movie’s got everything: war-torn lovers, smoking parlors, sexual tension, an evil chocolatier played by Benedict Cumberbatch, family secrets, precocious Saoirse Ronan, dramatic deaths, and betrayal. Set against the backdrop of the First World War, Atonement follows the sweeping love story of beautiful, snobbish Cecilia and working class Robbie, played by Keira Knightley with a jaw so sharp it could kill a man and boy-next-door James McAvoy, respectively. Saoirse received her first Oscar nomination for her role as Cecilia’s incredibly annoying theater kid sister Briony (or at least that’s how I viewed her when I first saw the film as a preteen). But most of the gooey, decadent drama of the film draws itself from everything but the acting.
There’s Cecilia’s clingy, drop-waist emerald green silk dress, created by costume designer Jacqueline Durran, which was seared into my brain at so young an age that I couldn’t help but seek out some shadowy imitation for my own prom. There’s the five-minute-long single take over the battle of Dunkirk, masterfully executed by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, that makes Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk look like amateur hour. And of course, there’s the sex scene in the library. That scene – that scene – has sparked and shaped God knows how many sexualities over the past decade. Throw in the preceding fountain scene and you’ve got the horniest movie that you could still comfortably talk about with your grandma.
Some will say I’m missing the point, but on re-watches, I tend to stick to the film’s sharper first half and avoid the doldrums of the war scenes. What can I say? On bad days, I love nothing more than a sad rich girl in a big beautiful house. It’s my comfort movie, both warm and tragic in a way that makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to watch the first 30 minutes again before bed.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has peppered headlines lately with the news that Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves actually got married on set (which is iconic). But this horror film has been on the lips of horror fans since its release in 1992. Francis Ford Coppola adapted Bram Stoker’s widely-regarded gothic horror novel into something wild, sexy, and divisive. Plus it has quite the star-studded cast, with Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, and Gary Oldman as Dracula.
I saw this film, like many horror films, at an inappropriately young age. It stuck in my mind, not only for its gore and monster sex, but its elaborate costumes and set pieces. Dracula’s Transylvanian castle is breathtaking, dank, and haunting, full of succubi (yes, my dad made me cover my eyes during the vampire orgy scene). Then, it shifts to a 19th-century London and the opulent households of the British elite. But Oldman’s presence in the film was particularly striking for me. He’s trash, but the makeup and styling of his Dracula is absolutely phenomenal, both in his young and old forms. His older form is decrepit, clad in flowing red robes, and exudes an air of pure evil. His younger form is pure Victorian gentleman, from the tiny sunglasses to an air of superiority. I was haunted as a kid by the scene where Dracula’s shadow follows Jonathan Harker across the dark and damp walls of his castle.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a weird movie, full of vampires, weird sex scenes, and male ego. But it is also an ambitious project by Coppola and stands out as a particularly strong period horror piece. It spans across centuries and countries, creating something unique and bizarre.
Bright Star (2009) dir. Jane Campion
“Touch has a memory.”
“I know it.”
It’s a story about a crush, to say the least. Still, it manages to crush me with all the intensity of that said crush. We see two people, Fanny Brawne and John Keats, taking an interest towards each other. In this film, there’s a game of coquetry, both of them trying to conquer over each other. Not with domination, but with meek longing. Fanny, with all of her burgeoning sense of self, her idea of love, and her love for poetry. Fanny wants to learn poetry from John, but she also wants to be with John. John himself, responds with hostility, not because he hates her, but he wants her to know what she’s in for. The hostility itself is subtle, it hints a little charm, it is painful, it is beautiful, it is so good to witness.
Jane Campion structures the film with the most unhurried pace you could think of. It lures you in, intoxicating you with feelings, the biggest, most intense feelings you probably could feel. There’s a tenderness to it, even when you’re being swayed into aching. The cinematography also stands as one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen.
What I love about this film is the performances; Abbie Cornish playing Fanny Brawne, and Ben Whishaw playing John Keats. I can write a lot about the way they design the relationship, as well as their characters. Just like a trope torn from the coming-of-age films we’ve seen before, Abbie Cornish drives the film with her portrayal of Fanny. Fanny is an 18-year-old girl, so she does what most teenage girls do at that period of time. She’s childish, and it shows in how she loves a person. But also, like another trope from coming-of-age films, she flourishes. She understands how to love a person so alarming, so damaging to themselves, that she starts to walk into John’s life as a student. You can see that day by day: her maturity begins to grow a spine, she knows how to take it and give it back. Abbie Cornish plays it so gracefully, so beautifully, so naturally, that it’s sometimes hard to pay attention to any other thing. Whereas Ben Whishaw is always so beautiful, always so turbulent in becoming John Keats. Basically, he’s phenomenal in this. Every poetry that he speaks, it’s like water falling. Calm, acute, messy; but nonetheless, wonderful.
There’s a scene towards the end where Abbie Cornish does one of the best “Oscar-bait” scenes I’ve ever seen. You’ll know what I’m talking about. I get chills even thinking about it.
House of Tolerance (2011) dir. Bertrand Bonello
Visual opulence is one of the first words that come to mind when talking about Bertrand Bonello’s filmography. But what makes him so special as a director is how he fuses his visual grandeur into his narratives. In House of Tolerance, we enter a pompous, high-class brothel during the very first year of the 20th century and get introduced to the prostitutes who spend their days there. It’s a film as visually arresting as period pieces come and it immerses the viewer from the first second on into its world – a gorgeous prison. As in his most recent film, Nocturama, an intoxicating rush of anti-systematic despair, the central theme is capitalism. It’s hard to distinguish the exact points Bonello makes here, which is once again parallel to his latest film. We find ourselves at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy which mainly makes us witness a tapestry of emotion that this place brings to light.
The film is heartbreaking, but not exploitative despite the graphic nature of many scenes. Bonello never leaves the women’s perspective – the presence of female cinematographer Josée Deshaies is certainly crucial in that aspect, and his writing creates strong, layered female protagonists, who are not reduced to victims. While House of Tolerance is definitely a period piece in every formal sense, Bonello pulls the rug from under the viewer’s feet in the last scenes of the film. He recontextualizes his narrative into the present and shows that patriarchy will show its effects as long as capitalism exists. It’s an effective feat that only few filmmakers out there could accomplish, and it makes House of Tolerance transcend into a work of genius.
Lady Snowblood (1973) dir. Toshiya Fujita
“I’ve immersed my body in the river of vengeance and thrown away my womanhood many moons ago.”
Born in the squalid conditions of a prison in 1874, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) was conceived for one reason: to inherit her mother’s quest for bloody revenge against the gang who raped her and murdered her husband and son. (Yes, it’s another rape-revenge story, but this trope was not yet done to death when the film was released in 1973.) The red-hot wrath that pumps through Yuki’s veins burns so vividly that she becomes an asura, a demonic demigod stemming from Buddhist mythology. Twenty years of vigorous training later, Yuki has become an assassin going by the name Shurayuki-hime, which translates to Snow White in Japanese. Armed with nothing more than a katana hidden in the handle of her parasol, she is ready to fulfill her late mother’s dying wish.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series is a modern-day, American retelling. The decision to Westernize this period piece is conflicting, considering the fact that the setting of Meiji-era Japan is instrumental to Lady Snowblood’s overarching theme of anger (and I say this as someone whose favorite film of all time is Kill Bill Vol. 1). During the late-1800s, the Japanese elite began to excessively exploit the lower-class in favor of assimilating into Western capitalism. In a climactic scene, Yuki shows up to a masquerade ball dressed in traditional Japanese garb while the white American attendees don suits, further illustrating the divide. Perhaps the most telling image is when Yuki slashes a corrupt criminal’s neck, causing him to fall to his death and splatter his blood over both the American and Japanese flags hanging from the railing.
Though Kill Bill completely erases its source material’s political overtones, preferring instead to focus on personal vengeance above all, I find it difficult to denounce. By including Kaji’s original euphonious performance of “The Flower of Carnage” in the soundtrack to the climactic snow-filled showdown between The Bride and O-ren Ishii at the House of Blue Leaves, it’s apparent that Tarantino comes from a place of respect rather than appropriation. Both films manage to find the beauty in choreographed sword-fighting, in the robust color of blood, spurting like a frenzied fountain as kick-ass women dismember villainous limbs. Sure, the unflinching violence of Lady Snowblood is over-the-top even for today’s standards, but that’s exactly what makes it so much fun, Jan!
Maurice (1987) dir. James Ivory
Before there was Call Me By Your Name, there was another landmark, sun-dappled tale of gay desire penned by James Ivory – one which came at the end of the eighties, right at the height of the AIDs crisis, and which openly challenged the archetypal tropes of the most traditional of genres: The period drama. Maurice is a feature from 1987, one which often gets lost in the extensive Merchant-Ivory collection amidst classics such as Howard’s End and A Room With a View, but which arguably deserves to enjoy the same kind of widespread recognition as its counterparts.
Set in the early 20th century, Maurice tells the tale of James Wilby’s titular protagonist – a young, idealistic Cambridge type who finds himself embroiled in a heady affair with Hugh Grant’s impossibly beautiful Clive Durham, and whose devotion to his schoolfriend often proves as heart-breaking as it does tender. Maurice, much like Call Me By Your Name, is so visually stunning in its depiction of the sprawling English countryside and the placid rivers of Cambridge – it’s almost overwhelming. Its aesthetic is so detailed, with such attention paid to it, that it feels as if one has stepped into a dreamscape in watching it – perhaps not unlike the sense that Maurice encounters upon falling in love with Clive for the first time.
Maurice is significant, not only for the role it played in the continuing development of gay cinema as a whole, but also for its open attempt to subvert the heteronormative expectations of a period drama. For its determinedness to tackle and reshape a section of film so deeply rooted in heterosexual love affairs, it should be lauded, and should certainly be considered among the greats of Merchant-Ivory, if not amongst the greats of the entire genre.
Queen Christina (1933) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
The period piece that I’ve watched the most is without a doubt Rouben Mamoulian’s biographical drama, Queen Christina. The film follows the reign of Queen Christina of Sweden, from the time she’s a child to her growth as an influential leader. The Queen is portrayed by none other than the Swedish Queen of Hollywood, Greta Garbo. The film is as historically epic as any, with its grandiose sets, costumes, and its many memorable scenes that you can find referenced in other films. For example, the scene where Christina walks around her room at the Inn, memorizing its every aspect, is seen in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. The film is ahead of its time and an unintended look at celebrity culture.
It’s ahead of its time because it’s the story of a homosexual monarch – and how best to tell it than during the pre-code era? Certain events that occurred during the time, like the Thirty Years’ War, and many real historical figures are portrayed, but ultimately, the film is historical fiction. The fiction comes with Christina’s reasoning for abdicating her throne. Her reason for abdication was her determination not to marry (lesbian!), and while Garbo’s Christina is seen kissing a woman, promising to run away with her, all while wearing male attire, it falls to the constraints of its time and the narrative is changed. And despite her declaration that she’ll “die a bachelor,” screenwriters make Christina abdicate because of her love for a man.
Queen Christina, in my mind, also provides discourse on celebrity by being a reflection of Garbo’s life in Hollywood. Like the film’s titular character, celebrities are looked at and worshipped as gods. They have overwhelming pressures put upon them to please their public, to the point where that’s all their life is. They must disguise themselves to avoid being recognised, and like Christina says, the only time she can do something she wants to do, like read a book, is when she rises in the middle of the night. She expresses her longing to be looked at as a human being with the freedom to act on her desires and impulses. And, ultimately, when the burden of celebrity becomes too great, she rises from her throne, removes her crown, and walks out of the spotlight.
A Quiet Passion (2017) dir. Terence Davies
I think about Terence Davies’ latest feat quite a lot, which is especially strange considering I have only seen it a single time. But some films don’t need more than that to stay with you forever. The revered and somehow simultaneously underseen filmmaker tackles the life of Emily Dickinson, one of the most important poets of the 19th century. A Quiet Passion is so accomplished, because it feels like a seamless transition of Dickinson’s presence as in her intimate poems, to Cynthia Nixon’s full-fledged on-screen persona. In the same vein, the film manages to perfectly capture the emotional landscape that Dickinson creates in her own body of work. Hers is a deeply reflective voice that never faded until the decease of her body. This persona surely wouldn’t have been as convincing and emotionally tangible, if not for Nixon’s talent. She embodies a person, who permanently reflects, even when hope fades, who feels that life is often sad, but embraces it nonetheless. Her performance is sweeping and oozes the deep, passionate and bittersweet relationship to life that Dickinson expressed too. It’s rare that a film manages to be so deeply resonant and it’s even rarer when a film makes you strive for a mindset equal to the main character’s one. But A Quiet Passion manages to achieve both and flows as a timeless tapestry of pure emotion directly into our hearts.
Ran (1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa is known for creating elaborately beautiful tales about Japan’s samurais, and his 1985 film Ran is no exception. The film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, about an aging king’s descent into madness. Ran’s mad king is aging daimyo Hidetora Ichimonji, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who divides his kingdom among his three sons. But, as always, it isn’t so easy. The three sons battle one another, strategic marriages take place, families are torn apart, and it is all met with a tragic end.
Ran is a fascinating use of color, particularly reds. Much of Kurosawa’s filmography is in black and white, so Ran serves as a contrast to his previous samurai films, such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. The beautiful use of color for Ran’s costuming won Emi Wada an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
The film’s beauty extends beyond its costumes into beautiful wide shots of the Japanese countryside. It makes all of the characters, and ensuing events, feel so small and inconsequential as compared to the vastness of nature. The scale of the film is almost overwhelming, capturing nature’s beauty in the face of humanity’s propensity for evil. Kurosawa is skilled in creating and choreographing elaborate battle scenes. The wide shots used to capture the beauty of nature also capture the intensity of these samurai battles.
Ran is a testament to Kurosawa’s ambition and creativity as a filmmaker. He takes a well-known Western story and makes it something captivating and new. While those familiar with King Lear know the story’s tragic end, Kurosawa is able to create something visually engaging and spectacular.
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010) dir. James Kent
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010) is a stunning biographical film on Anne Lister (Maxine Peake), who was not only known for being a highly successful industrialist in the 19th century, but also for her relationships with other women, all of which were written in complex code in her diaries. It definitely is a film that deserves a lot more attention for the way it carefully balances Lister’s lesbian relationships and her ferocity in managing business, aspects of her life which were greatly detested by a more conservative society.
One of the highlights of the film is its depiction of lesbian relationships – it delicately fleshes out the joys and turmoils of Lister’s and Mariana Belcombe’s affair in a manner that hardly feels like it’s sexualised for the male consumption, but rather, an honest homage to the real-life women who were trying their best to navigate a forbidden love. Furthermore, while it does show the oppression Lister faces for her sexuality, this oppression is never given the spotlight or used as a mere plot device to milk our tears. Instead, what shines in the film is Lister’s unabashedness for being an openly lesbian woman, her adamant refusal to submit to men, and her tenderness towards all the women she is in love with. This, I feel, is important in an age where lesbian films are still rooted in tragedy; our struggles laced with everlasting self-pity.