It is the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett (Keira Knightley), is reading a book as she walks through the English countryside. The house comes alive not because it’s been entered by Elizabeth, but because of Mary.
Mary, Elizabeth’s less romantic sister, who is more like Austen herself, plays the piano in the centre of the family home. Her back is to us. We do not see her face but the tune permeates the rest of the film and gives it life.
The end of the story comes with the end of the melody. The silence after the heartbeat of the house where the women’s stories came alive, now confined.
When I think of period films, I think of women. Not about films set in a particular period of time, which is what the term means, but of women confined to a place and time. I think of the dead women – Austen, the Brontës, Louisa May Alcott, and more – who wrote fictional stories of women’s lives about how they were affected by the world, and how their life’s work is buried within the confines of the period, the full stop.
I think of films based on the lives of real women, from royalty to feminist political activists and trailblazers like in Suffragette (2015), confined by the period of their lifetime. They also make me think of bodily periods, women’s lives on the screen always equating female struggle but never quite expanding upon it. It is a token struggle confined within a body and the screen, a sign of the times rather than anything that could lead to a resolution.
While female-led “historical romcoms” like the many Austen adaptations are pigeonholed as period films, the male-led historical film is allowed a more flexible identity. Film adaptations based on male-authored fiction from the past (Sherlock Holmes, 2009) is known as a crime, detective or whodunit film. Male-led films set in specific periods of time, like Tarantino’s upcoming, ’70s-inspired Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, are recognised in the same way – in this case, the very Tarantino-esque boundaries of the “cult film”. Essentially, not all films set in specific periods of history are defined by their historicity, but more by their storytelling type in culture today.
Genres are fluid, so the boundaries we set for films via the genres we assign are indicative of relevance. To give a period film multiple genres is to cement its cultural relevance and mark it primarily as an action film, thriller or drama. Films about the lives of women, fictional or biographical, are nearly always, more than anything, period films. They are defined by their historicity, removed from immediate relevance, and confined to the past. Theirs is a world which we can glimpse but not expand upon. The full stop at the end of the page.
Well let us make this page a little longer then, shall we?
Period films may hark back to a different time, but they should not be disregarded as a mere slice of the past, a static image of people and places alien to us. They show us where we’ve come from as a culture, so they also show us how we got here, and where we might be going next. They are entertaining homages to women who have been, celebrating sisterhood; they are also alive pieces of culture with a heartbeat. They are not fine ladies lined up on a dusty shelf.
Period films are pretty and whimsical, with an impressive ability to make muddy fields, bad weather, scarlet fever and no electricity look romantic. The genre is often derided for its focus on surface beauty, but as always there is more meaning to be found. Take the scene in Pride and Prejudice (2005) where Lizzie Bennett (Keira Knightley) walks through Chatsworth House—
It is so much bigger than her house, or more specifically, the house her cousin Mr Collins will inherit. It’s better than him inheriting her though.
She is surrounded by sculptures, unchanging statues white with preservation. There’s a sculpture of a woman or a goddess with face covered in a white veil and no identity. There is a bust of Mr Darcy.
In making women part of the cultural landscape of art, it inherits other parts of culture like Western countries’ colonialist history and its celebration of whiteness over blackness. The white female figure in the sculpture gallery, and in most period films, are both indicative of the cultural erasure of anyone who was not white or middle class. On one hand, Lizzie is looking at a beautiful piece of art. On the other hand it is a faceless woman, only her whiteness important. Similar to the costume and aesthetics in the film, it is easy to forget how little agency women had other than fitting (and exploiting) the right type. It is much easier to be enamoured with how beautiful it all is.
To be regarded as a women’s genre, from chick flicks to period films, is seen as apolitical. Keira Knightley states that period films are underrated due to their association with the feminine. Analysis on period films feels scarce in comparison to other genres. You’re likely to find more cultural intellectual interest in Batman (1989) than Jane Eyre (2011), Daughters of the Dust (1991) or any period film. Works of art being undervalued because of their perceived femininity is the very thing that makes period films so interesting and bold.
If we, in the 21st century, after many waves and crashes of feminism, are suggesting that period films are culturally irrelevant, we are acknowledging that many ordinary women did not have the cultural power to make change that affects our future. The implication is that they were institutionally confined by the binary distinction of their womanhood. But that sentiment disregards one thing: what if it is the lack of wiggle room within this binary that makes period films culturally revolutionary in their own way?
“I could never love anyone as I love my sisters” – Jo March, Little Women.
It’s in that restrictive binary of womanhood where the period film thrives. When realising that you will always be apart from men, what better to do than say: … fuck ’em. It is a genre created out of a cultural disregard for women’s films, that celebrates women anyway. Period films based on women’s lives or works of art have never not been bold. The emphasis on female rebellion (Marie Antoinette, 2006) and queerness (The Duchess, 2008) are culturally relevant today because they help to unlearn and humanise the glorified past which tends to erase the LGBT community.
We are talking about a milieu that cares about men very little and about women very much. Even our favourite male characters are only made important to the audience because of their relationship to the female protagonists. If Elizabeth never loved Mr Darcy, I wouldn’t care about him. He’s just as flawed as the incestuous (I guess it was normal then?) cousin Mr Collins – but we hate Collins, because not even his wife loves him. If the gender binary is enforced, it may as well be made comical.
Almost all of the male characters are movers and shakers of culture. They own the property, make the laws, and, as in Colette (2019), where Knightley’s titular character has her work passed off as her husband’s, supposedly write the culture. In this way, period films slyly reflect the status quo and how women view it. Men may be culturally and politically relevant, but they cannot be empathised with in the film unless let in by a female character. To be part of the narrative is to be loved by women. But as we know from the presence of romance and all of its hurdles, demons, tears, misunderstandings and plot twists, it is not easy to become an equal.
If period films become recognised as a cultural force to be reckoned with, we would have a great thing: a whole genre that focuses on women, that has the potential to represent a broader scope of women whom history has erased or glossed over in history books, and that hopefully bears more female directors’ visions.
The period film has the potential to be a genre that celebrates every form of womanhood in the form of all types of women loving each other, from mothers, sisters (Little Women, 1994), cousins and lovers (Frida, 2002, The Favourite, 2018). Period films have never not been bold. Women have made revolutions invisible to our male-centric cultural eye, so why not get bolder?