By Saffron Dale
We’re scared to stylise history. Directors have found a trope for historical film and television that they know sells. Some do it well but nearly all are too afraid to deviate from its restrictive and predictable conventions. Directors have two choices when it comes to historical film and television. They keep it light-hearted whilst maintaining historical accuracy, god forbid they inaccurately portray an already subjective history. Or they go dark. Think The Tudors or The White Queen, never failing to capture the brutal, bloody and deceitful side of the royal courts. Again, although I’m partial to the latter, for a subgenre with disturbing conventions, this trope has been used for nearly every period in British history.
We’ve all heard of shows like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. Although, evidently well filmed and acted, why do the conventions, tropes and plots all follow the same pattern? There are no experimental camera angles, no subjective portrayals of characters’ psychological states, no verge on the uncanny. The genre has been so overused that its conventions have become rigid and even suffocating. Where’s the creative freedom and artistic experimentalism?
Even in the darker subgenre, with shows like Reign and films like Elizabeth, the same gloomy conventions are followed almost to the letter. However, the latter subgenre contains some notable mentions like Chernobyl and The Crown, which execute emotional richness and darker themes so beautifully that they deserve to set the standard.
More exciting is our next subgenre which merges the modern with the old. Baz Luhrmann achieves this in Romeo + Juliet. Luhrmann combines sixteenth-century Shakespearean dialogue with a 90’s grunge soundtrack and a fast-paced modern world. In my opinion, the combination creates a masterpiece, yet many critics disagree.
It’s undeniable that this subgenre inevitably produces its flops. Although Bridgerton succeeds in merging the hypersexuality and multiculturalism of modernity with Regency-era England, the series doesn’t delve far enough into such an experimental contrast. Rather than treating these themes creatively, it adheres to the rigid confines of classical period drama tropes. Although the string quartet versions of modern songs are a clever, subtle touch, they don’t punch as hard as Luhrmann’s 90’s grunge in the backdrop of Shakespearean prose. Most successful are the directors that portray history in their own artistic style at the expense of everything else.
Director Adam McKay has delved into this stylistic depiction of recent history with films like The Big Short and Vice. McKay’s witty, fast-paced and comical depictions are subjective and innovative representations of modern historical crises. However, are these depictions only achievable in regards to modern history? Individuals like Yorgos Lanthimos and Tony McNamara are challenging this idea. Lanthimos’ The Favourite is perhaps the first of its kind to shed early modern British history in such a comical, disturbing, and absurdist light. Likewise, McNamara’s The Great captures Catherine the Great and the enlightenment in a much more subjective but arguably realistic way. Instead of placing historical accuracy and intensely spoken, rigid scriptwriting before subjective representation, these directors capture the essence of the time more effectively. With its Succession-like sarcastic speech and cynical undertones, The Great captures the more natural modes of conversation likely to be had by eighteenth-century monarchs rather than the melodramatic soliloquies committed to by conventional period dramas.
Despite the brilliance of arthouse history, I can only name a handful of shows and films that fit into the arthouse genre. This is hardly sufficient to constitute an arthouse historical film and television category. Critics vehemently attacked The Favourite and The Great for lack of commitment to historical accuracy. It’s this that I believe scares directors away from making history arthouse. Still, history itself is subjective and if there exist accurate representations to refer to, I don’t see why filmmakers aren’t allowed to bend history for art’s sake. With Pablo Larrain’s Spencer premiering this month, it’ll be interesting to see his take on Princess Diana’s inner world. If its anything like Jackie, Larrain could remain too frightened to veer into the depths of arthouse for fear of perverting fact.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao