Visions of the Past: Period Dramas

Steven Thorley Blogs

Inspired by the new movie – Mary, Queen of Scots.

I’ve been inspired by the upcoming film Mary, Queen of Scots to look at period dramas and historical romanticized fiction.
It’s clear this film is going to draw on the tense relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I and draw the drama from this situation with all the tropes (exquisite costumes, intense acting, use of dramatic license etc) you expect from the film’s production company Working Title films. Notable for their estheticized and romantically stylistic visions of the past. As opposed to a straight-forward historical biopic that may avoid romanticism altogether.
Hence, I can combine these films under the title of period dramas; though some are based on classic fiction and others romanticised visions of the past.

The upcoming Mary, Queen of Scots will feature actress Saoirse Ronan in the title role. At only 24 years old she has a filmography that many actors would envy.
Actress Margot Robbie will portray Elizabeth I and follow in the footsteps of another Australian actress Cate Blanchett who took on the role in 1998’s Elizabeth (also from Working Title Films).
How many actresses could go from playing DC comics Harley Quinn to Elizabeth I in just a couple of years?
She put so much energy and passion into portraying American figure skater Tonya Harding in ‘I, Tonya’ and judging by the previews she’s refined her upcoming role as Elizabeth I too.

Steven Thorley Blogs

Elizabeth (1998) / Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

1998’s Elizabeth chronicles the early years of Queen Elizabeth I of England, with Australian actress Cate Blanchett in the title role.

The film’s narrative focuses on Elizabeth’s love interest Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) and Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk’s (Christopher Eccleston) conspiracy against her.
Elizabeth stood as a benchmark for this type of cinema in 1998; it was down to earth, layered, and refined with balanced performances, and didn’t shy away from depicting the periods darker themes.

The film was stylish, well-acted, atmospheric and had some eccentric underpinnings.
Another Australian actor Geoffrey Rush would play Francis Walsingham (a role he would reprise in the sequel) and have great chemistry with actress Cate Blanchett.
A particularly memorable moment occurs when Elizabeth I, knelt beneath a gigantic painting of Henry VIII and considers if she’s lived up to her father’s reputation, or should she live up to it, considering what became of her mother. The scene is both majestic and disconcerting and very powerful.

Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of Thomas Howard is a little too menacing and Robert Dudley is reduced to a love interest. But this is part of the romanticised and theatrical nature of these films.
The flamboyant and lush 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, catches up with Elizabeth I at the latter half of her reign and focuses primarily on her other potential suitor Sir Walter Raleigh who is portrayed by actor Clive Owen.
Both Elizabeth and particularly Elizabeth: The Golden Age have great scores also.

Steven Thorley BlogsLady Jane (1986)

Lady Jane Grey also known as the ‘Nine Days Queen’ was an English noblewoman and short-lived monarch. Who succeeded Edward VI after he chose her as a desirable successor, due in part to her Protestant faith.

Lady Jane Grey proved an intelligent, compassionate, and well-meaning yet reluctant Queen.

Tragically after only 9 days in power, Jane was ousted by Mary I (Bloody Mary due to her penchant for executions and burnings) due, in part, to apparent questions surrounding the legality of her position and a shift in support towards Mary I from her own council.

The film Lady Jane starred Helena Bonham Carter in the title role of Lady Jane Grey and Cary Elwes as Lord Guilford Dudley.
This film is beautifully made and features picturesque photography, which makes use of substitute locations such as Leeds Castle very effectively.
Lady Jane Grey is presented as an intellectually curious individual, and very independent minded, which in many plains of understanding would serve her well, but in this film, it comes at her detriment.

Lady Jane’s predicament

A scene in Lady Jane where Lady Jane Grey is reluctantly forced to wear a crown is particularly moving and effectively performed. I feel it represents ‘metaphorically’ much of what is wrong with her predicament, and particularly the notion of men dictating what women should do.

The story surrounding Lady Jane presents something of a historical oddity. Despite the historical reasons for her predicament, you can’t help but consider that she was a very strong-minded young woman and apparently outspoken, perhaps that was at odds with the mechanisms of the monarchy at that time.

The film is romanticised and focuses primarily on a whirlwind romance between Lady Jane Grey and Lord Guilford Dudley. A romance that likely never occurred in the way its depicted.
Nonetheless, this film holds up exceptionally well for over 30 years old. I think this is due to director Trevor Nunn’s command of his cast, and an exceptional performance from Helena Bonham Carter which is both impassioned and tragic.
As a historical figure Lady Jane Grey clearly had many virtuous qualities, and time has been kind to this tragically short-lived Queen, who led a short, yet resolutely dignified existence.

Steven Thorley BlogsThe House of Mirth (2000)

This movie tells the story of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) as a well-connected socialite. But she’s unmarried and seeking a suitable husband, she has high standards that undermine any chances she has for real love; including neglecting an opportunity with perfect match Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz).

Her story takes her literally from the top of society right down to living in poverty, with unwelcome advances, misguided financial choices, and a dash of self-pity along the way.

The character of Lily Bart is complex and her situation questionable, but the notion of that is contained within the heart of the story: she is both flawed, privileged and tragic in equal measure.
The dialogue is sharp and the direction and performances organic. The story is heart-achingly effective and melancholic.

Actress Gillian Anderson draws you into the character of Lily, and her performance in this film is amongst the best examples the craft cinema has to offer.
To some degree, Lily is a victim of her own circumstances, but her circumstances could have easily gone in a different direction, hence the flawed nature of the character and the culture she’s intertwined with.
Some may enjoy this story more than others (it’s bleak yet beautiful) but if you really invest in the material it has lots of rewards.

Steven Thorley BlogsAnna Karenina (2012)

Anna Karenina is a film based on the classic (many consider the best) novel by Russian author – Leo Tolstoy.

The film chronicles troubled noblewoman Anna Karenina (Keira Knightly) as she is caught between her husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and Russian societal rules. And, her affair with the opposite in every way – love interest Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor Johnson).

A subplot involves a romance between Princess Ekaterina Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander) and Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). But it lacks emotional resonance in this film. This romance is gradually paralleled against the events in Anna’s life, and, indeed, her romance.

As per usual from Working Title films, the style is slightly eccentric and easy on the eyes. The cinematography & camera work is first-rate, and the film maintains a fluid ‘visual’ narrative and style, which never lapses and surprises frequently.

Actress Keira Knightly has natural on-screen chemistry with actor Aaron Taylor Johnson but the chemistry between herself and Jude law is weak. Thus, leaving the script to connect the two alone, and so failing to transfer the heart and soul of Leo Tolstoy’s much-respected novel.
But we do get an exquisitely made film in terms of the production and a spellbinding performance from Keira Knightly.

Steven Thorley BlogsGosford Park (2001)

2001’s Gosford Park came courtesy of the pioneering and distinguished American director Robert Altman.


Known for his use of large assemble casts and sense of realism in his films.
He would achieve this by incorporating techniques such as overlapping dialogue (speech at the same time), a loose flowing narrative structure, and a camera which is regularly in motion as it intertwines within the various goings on within the given story.

Robert Altman enjoyed playing with audience expectations and challenging cinematic conventions, and you will see many murder mystery conventions challenged in Gosford Park. Stephen Fry’s useless detective Inspector Thompson and the films open-ended conclusion being two.

The film is exploring the reality behind the idyllic countryside retreat facade and concludes with a tragic revelation concerning the murder.
The plot concerns a gathering of rich socialites at a country estate organized by a rich British family, the McCordles (Michael Gambon, Kristen Scott Thomas, & Camilla Rutherford) and ends in murder.
The subsequent story focuses not only on the guests but the various servants who inhabit this picturesque setting. Ultimately revealing dark secrets.
The film features an assemble cast featuring Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, and Camilla Rutherford, amongst a cast of many other well-known actors.

Steven Thorley BlogsWide Sargasso Sea (1993)

Writer Jean Rhys’s most successful novel.

The story is a feminist and anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, which is set in Jamaica around 1834 shortly after the abolition of slavery amongst the British Empire.

The story begins with wealthy Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway marrying Mr. Rochester as part of an arranged marriage. Unbeknownst to Mr. Rochester, Antoinette has a troubled background plagued by a childhood trauma and a history of mental illness.

The film stars Karina Lombard as Antoinette Cosway (Mason in Jayne Eyre) and Nathaniel Parker as Edward Rochester and was directed by John Duigan best known for 1997 cult classic Lawn Dogs.

Wide Sargasso Sea has some avant-garde qualities (it’s particularly visually stylish and when this is combined with Stuart Copeland’s dreamy score it feels like art-house cinema). The film holds up from 1993 and presents a tragic character in Antoinette, we’re left feeling very sorry for her and disgusted by Edward Rochester, perhaps too much.

It’s an interesting divergence from the romanticized male stereotypes we are all so used to in classic period literature.
The film has a lush tropical Jamaican backdrop with sparkling waterfalls and dreamlike skies, perfectly captured in the cinematography.
The film is an understated interpretation of the novel but makes up for it with striking visuals and a dark foreboding atmosphere, and strong performances.
Actress Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker have chemistry and look compatible in a romanticized way.

Steven Thorley BlogsWashington Square (1997)

Washington Square tells the story of Dr Austin Sloper, a wealthy doctor living in New York’s Washington Sq. and his tense relationship with his daughter, Catherine.

After his wife dies in childbirth he is left to raise his daughter Catherine alone, but Catherine does not meet this stubborn upper-class man’s ideals when she turns out to be, in his view, quite awkward and undesirable.
Nonetheless she grows up to be an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her father does not approve of her love interest, Morris Townsend, who also doesn’t fit her curmudgeonly father’s expectations of a suitable husband.

This stylish and authentic period drama stars Albert Finney in the role of Austin Sloper with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Chaplin portraying Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend.

This story has been filmed once before as ‘The Heiress’ in 1949 by William Wyler and is based on the novel of the same name by Henry James.
This version is directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieska Holland whom made 1993’s The Secret Garden. She has distinct eye for detail and creating layered, atmospheric environments.

A powerful and effective scene occurs when Austin Sloper and his daughter Catherine go on a tour of Europe, where he confronts her over her love of Morris Townsend.
It’s a memorable scene and summarizes the tension between these two characters, especially when combined with the mountainous backdrop, it is evocative of the level of tension between this father and daughter, the notion of which is at the heart of this story.
Washington Square is a 90’s film which plays out like a traditional period drama, and it has all the flourishes (fine costumes, dramatic performances, and romance) you expect from this genre of cinema.

To Conclude

Time can be both empowering and disempowering by its nature, and it cannot be challenged. But cinema outsmarts it by keeping moments (films) locked in time.

In a sense when we revisit a film, we are going back in time, especially in period dramas, as were revisiting the year the film was released and the historical period it attempts to portray.
As far as time and specific films are concerned, time can either be a benefit to them or be at their detriment.
I think period drama is an important genre of cinema, but like all genre’s it has its hits and misses, but I think whereas television has expanded in this arena of period drama and romanticized historical dramas, in contrast we’re seeing a shortage on the big screen.
So, it’s welcome news that Mary, Queen of Scots will hit theatres in the U.K in January 2019.
Hopefully some of these films, if not all, will be worth a revisit, and hopefully provide something new for anyone out there yet to see them, as they are all time well spent.





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