Long before the superhero movie took the words “gritty reboot” and revolutionised a genre, period drama was working quietly away in the background doing exactly the same thing.
As the ’90s gave way to a new century, so Merchant Ivory was giving way to another, darker approach. The innocence and idyll of A Room With A View couldn’t survive the rise of the internet and the cynicism of a post-9/11 world; the British pastiche was dead, and a new kind of uber-realism rushed in to take its place.
Within the first twelve months of the new century Ridley Scott’s Gladiator set a radical new standard for the costume drama. A more drastic break from Merchant Ivory could not be imagined – out with classic British landscapes and in with the dust and sun of the ancient world; out with refined repression and in with murder, revenge, and even incest. This return to the ancients appeared apropos of very little; the era hadn’t enjoyed cinematic popularity since Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus in the ’60s, and there’d been little to indicate that the sword-and-sandal epic would return with such a (appropriate) vengeance. With a speedy journey from development to production – David Franzoni’s first draft was completed in ’98 and production began in January ’99 – the film and its incredible effect on the period drama pretty much came out of nowhere. Despite a rocky production (Russell Crowe tried to rewrite the script every single day), it heralded a tremendous turning-point; not only did it rekindle interest in the historical epic, it legitimised this new approach to period drama, gaining the Academy stamp of approval with five Oscars and pushing the genre out of the cosy British industry and into modern Hollywood.
Swords, sand, sun, and sandals have spent little time off screen since. From the genus of Gladiator, films set in antiquity have evolved into their own cinematic subset, from the historic like Alexander and Agora to the “realistic” take on the Myth with Clash of the Titans and Troy. Gladiator‘s status as semi-fictional reversed the literary bias that had haunted period films since the 1940s; in the 21st century, writing your own history is the trend du jour.
If today’s historical epics do take their stories from somewhere, the medium is likely to be as modern as the approach; these days filmmakers are turning to graphic novels, and not just for films like Sin City. The adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, employs surrealism and extensive visual effects to recreate the pseudo-historic world of the comic book. The words of Classical authors like Aeschylus, Diodorus, Herodotus and Plutarch are taken literally and then far beyond that; the Persian army is populated by Aeschylus’ “monstrous human herd” in a way that would’ve been far beyond his understanding. Director Zack Snyder is open about turning the historical epic into a fantasy film, shedding accuracy for the best story. In his own way, Snyder’s historic epic employs pastiche in the same way as Merchant Ivory, where 300 is “more an evocation than a history lesson.”
It’s not just Ancient history that has enjoyed a more fantastical approach. The blending of history, reality, and fantasy has touched other periods in the last fifteen years of cinema, from the medieval to the Victorian. The creative freedom of the internet that finds expression in fan fiction and places like Tumblr has bled outwards and into Hollywood; in the post-modern world, filmmakers are free to play like never before.
Take A Knight’s Tale, an early-2000s film that plays fast and loose with historic accuracy. Heath Ledger’s hero Will might look like a medieval knight, but he talks like a 21st-century teenager and knows all the words to ‘Golden Years’ by David Bowie. This meta approach to mise-en-scène, about as far away from the painstaking accuracy of Merchant Ivory as one might get, can be found in other places like Marie Antoinette and Moulin Rouge!: Marie wears Converse sneakers under her dress and is soundtracked by ’80s pop-punk; Satine and Christian serenade each other with Nirvana, Madonna, Paul McCartney, T-Rex, The Police, and Bowie (again). Rather than positioning period films resolutely in their own time, the modern approach draws them out and into our own world so that, rather than looking at the past through a window, the past is pulled into our present and vice versa.
That’s not to say that the more traditional approach has died out – on the contrary, hundreds of big-name, big-screen films get by without a shred of fantasy or the spilling of blood. What has changed is that realism spearheaded by Gladiator; gone are the rolling lawns and clean streets and pure white muslins of the ’90s, replaced instead with the nitty-gritty of real 18th and 19th century life. 2005’s Pride and Prejudice resolutely did away with refined young ladies sitting in drawing rooms; instead the Bennet girls are a rambunctious mess of siblings talking over one another and fighting, in the same way you might expect from five sisters living in a semi-detached in Wandsworth in the year 2000. Lizzie Bennet wears brown more than any other colour, reflecting the idea that her frequent walks in the country make white an impossible fashion choice. The family home Longbourn is a farm, filled with chickens and pigs and farmhands rather than neat flowerbeds. The same can be said for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which takes the mud level up to eleven, and the earthy quality of Pocahontas-based film The New World.
Moira Buffini’s 2011 script for Jane Eyre combined all this with an even bigger break from tradition – she restructured the entire novel itself. Instead of the book’s linear narrative, Buffini created a cyclical one that jumped back and forth between its three distinct sections, achieving a balance that had been impossible when the end goal was textual fidelity. Director Cary Fukunaga’s Californian hipster approach (giving everything the tinge of an Instagram filter) took it even further from the ’90s idyll – yet it falls closer to the heart of the text than any before it, mostly thanks to Buffini and Fukunaga embracing its Gothic roots. Instead of looking at it like a romance novel, Jane Eyre is instead given its due as the Gothic novel Brontë envisioned it as.
Going forward, there’s so much to look forward to in period drama. The release of Belle, a high-profile, studio-priority biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle – is a huge moment for the period film and an indication of the way in which, almost thirty years after the release of Maurice, the stories in the margins of history are starting to come to the fore.
The further away we move from the year 2000, the freer filmmakers become to grab the tropes of period drama from here, from there, from everywhere, twisting and changing them as they go. Though the more ‘romantic’ approach is still out there in Miss Potter or The Young Victoria, even those are never really far away from the dark or the serious. Just as the 21st century gave the superhero psychological complexity, so the cynicism of the modern world stripped the period drama of its straightforward and romantic ideals. Historical accuracy, the biopic, and a rejection of 1940s and 1990s ideals has moved the period drama into new territory, and the accessibility of the internet age has finally broken the shackles of sanctity to the text. The period drama is living in a new age.
Where it goes next? Nobody knows – but these days, anything is possible.