Ask someone what they think of when you mention 1990s period drama and they might just say “Merchant Ivory” – even if they don’t know what that means.
Launched in 1961, the production powerhouse has become synonymous with period films of the ’80s and ’90s. Howards End and A Room With A View (that sounds familiar) are pinnacles of both the production house and the aesthetic that it created without really meaning to – having aimed to produce English-language films in India, they instead came to symbolise an entire chapter in cinematic history.
Unlike their predecessors, these period films branched out both physically and subjectively. Soundstages disintegrated into the sprawling freedom of location shoots; out with painted vistas, in with real ones. Where previously the aim had been fealty to the text, now the idea was to explore not just the work but the space in which that work existed. Forty years previously the set had been just that – a mise-en-scène against which the real content was presented. It might be beautiful, it might be Oscar-worthy (Pride and Prejudice in 1940, Great Expectations in 1947, Little Women in 1949), but it wasn’t in the foreground. Merchant Ivory took mise-en-scène and made it a character in its own right.
Watch any of their films: against the tightly-wound relationships and burgeoning love, long takes and languorous wide shots open up the world in which they exist to new, enormous proportions. The natural landscape, whether it’s the Edwardian England of Howards End or the 1900s Italy of A Room With A View, is presented with as much (if not more) loving detail as the plots and characters themselves. Emma Thompson’s explorations of the eponymous Howards End are afforded almost fetishistic levels of lush, lavish cinematography, adding little to the story but acting as an indulgence for both filmmakers and audience. DoP Tony Pierce-Roberts had initially worked as a wildlife photographer, and it shows.
Yet despite the ‘naturalness’ of this aesthetic, it’s another kind of artificial. The world presented by these period films is not an accurate portrayal of history but an idyllic pastiche, an idealised British past that, in its own way, also aims to preserve the sanctity of the text – the sanctity of the time. The Merchant Ivory look exists to present period dramas within a world that never really existed.
But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all for ’80s and ’90s period drama; as the world evolved around them so did the films. In 1987 Merchant Ivory released Maurice, their second E.M. Forster adaptation after A Room With A View, but unlike its predecessor Maurice was not a well-admired curriculum classic. Posthumously published in 1971, Maurice was literally unpublishable in 1913 because of its content – a love story, yes, but rather than Lucy and George it’s the story of Maurice and Clive, Maurice and Alec. Today the idea of LGBT period drama is, whilst not prolific, certainly not something to bat an eyelid over – but with only twenty years between the premiere of Maurice and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, its significance suddenly comes to light. Though Maurice is in every other sense “just another Merchant Ivory movie”, it’s also a clear bridge between previous period dramas and the trends that would develop into the late ’90s.
The freedom that changing attitudes gave to period drama reflects in the variety that began to develop. Though Shakespeare enjoys evergreen popularity on film, the Elizabethan period as a whole started popping up with charming regularity and in differing combinations; a serious dramatic history in Elizabeth here, a frothy romantic take with Shakespeare In Love there. Filmmakers suddenly felt free to change things up, resulting in a slew of Shakespeare plays updated from sixteenth to nineteenth century Italy – a callback, perhaps, to the landscape of A Room With A View. The modernisation had also taken hold; to this day 10 Things I Hate About You and Romeo + Juliet remain some of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations committed to film (and do, in their 1990s way, capture a period of their own).
The ’90s also marks the moment when the history film came back. Whilst the 1940s shied away from anything that wasn’t literary, filmmakers in the ’90s turned to the real world for their stories – giving us Elizabeth, The Story of Joan of Arc, Mrs. Brown, Amadeus, and the pseudo-historic behemoth Titanic. Unlike the Merchant Ivory idyll these films embraced the trend of minute historic detail, from mud and blood to social and societal cruelty.
There’s one final turn of the screw for period drama in the ’80s and ’90s. Lying somewhere between the fiction of Merchant Ivory, the societal change of Maurice, and the muddy realism of the historic drama, films like Sleepy Hollow, Ever After, and The Mask of Zorro ensured that elements of fantasy and horror began to creep in. Screenwriter Susannah Grant readily admits that Ever After was designed to work like a feminist Merchant Ivory film; The Mask of Zorro follows in the footsteps of Errol Flynn adventures whilst adding an unsanitised mise-en-scène; and Prince Of Thieves takes Flynn’s classic Robin Hood and turns him into a realistic medieval hero (well, kind of). The creatures invented on the edge of a Swiss lake in 1816 – Frankenstein’s Monster and the modern vampire – sprang to life in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book and in a fascination for the undead that gave us Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With The Vampire.
From the genre-defining Merchant Ivory to the fantastical fiction and fictional history of Ever After and Elizabeth, the 1980s and ’90s mark a huge moment of change for the period drama, dragging it out of fealty to the text and into its first moments of artistic freedom – and opening a door into the next chapter.
NEXT: Tear Up the Script (or, the present day)