You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.
Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.
- American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
- Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
- Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
- Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
- The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes!
- The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
- Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
- L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
- Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
- Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
- Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
- Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
- Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
- My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
- North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
- Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
- The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good.
- The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
- Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
- The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
- A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
- True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
- A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours.
A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)
I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.
There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.
I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.
That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?
24 August 2010
The movies are no place for angry women. And I’m not just speaking of characters onscreen; female writers and directors can’t be angry, either. We’re very clear on this: men can get angry and get even, but women can’t behave in any way that might stop us from thinking they’re sexy — and dang, girls, anger is a real buzzkill. Now and then one of them slips through in disguise, though. I’m thinking here about Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” (2006) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996), a great BBC adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel. Earlier this summer I overdosed on 19th-c. novels, but it’s hard to stay away when it comes to the Brontës, especially if one has watched this great YouTube video 23 times:
The Brontës were pissed off, and “Tenant” — which tells the story of a young mother who’s escaping her abusive husband by hiding in a remote Yorkshire village — might be the angriest of all their novels. The producers couldn’t have found a better lead than Tara Fitzgerald, whose fierce face and husky voice (and those severe 1850s up-dos) epitomized the character of Helen Graham. Her husband wasn’t just a philandering, drunken, abusive beast who despises her; he also tried to raise their son in his image. Her disillusionment with him makes her ever more willing to express her strong opinions when she’s chit-chatting with her clueless new neighbors, who find her child-rearing practices alarming:
Mrs. Markham: “He’s a boy, my dear. You don’t want to spoil his spirit — you’ll make a mere Miss Nancy of him.”
Rev. Millward: “True virtue, my dear lady, consists in a conscious resistance to temptation, not ignorance of it.”
Gilbert Markham: “Teach him to fight, Mrs. Graham, not run away. If you want him to walk honestly through the world you mustn’t try to clear all the stones from his path.”
Helen Graham: “I shall lead him by the hand till he has the strength to go alone. I cannot trust that he will be that one man in a thousand and have that strength and virtue as a birthright.”
Gilbert, teasing her: “You do not think very highly of us, then.”
Helen, growing exercised: “I know nothing about you. I speak of those I do know.”
Gilbert: “Is it not better to arm your hero than to weaken him with too much care?”
Helen, angrily: “Would you say the same of a girl? Must her virtue be tested in battle?”
Rev. Millward, pedantically: “I should say not. A woman’s virtue is her modesty; a man’s, his strength of will.”
Gilbert, more seriously: “I would wish a woman’s virtue to be shielded from temptation.”
Helen, furiously: “Why? You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters remain in ignorance until it is too late?”
Gilbert, confused: “Too late?”
Helen, with finality: “I tell you, Mr. Markham, if I thought my son would grow up to be what you call a man of the world, I would rather that he died tomorrow.”
Not knowing Helen’s true situation — that her own ignorance led her into an impetuous marriage to a self-indulgent, selfish man — her neighbors first disapprove of her forthrightness, then gossip that she’s having an affair with her landlord.
So how did Anne Brontë sneak this one by her readers (and the BBC by its viewers)? By hiding the tale in the Trojan Horse of a romance. And damn, if you’re going to create a Trojan Horse, get the actor Toby Stephens to play the infatuated Gilbert Markham. He’s the son of Maggie Smith, eminently watchable as an actor, and so ridiculously pretty as to look almost cruel but for the auburn whiskers and freckles (and yes, he played Jane Eyre’s Rochester a few years ago). Lesson: if you’re angry and want to make a point about women’s subjection, it’ll go down easier if you create a hot, sensitive guy who’ll serve as our heroine’s reward when she comes out the other end of her miserable marriage.
Okay, that was the 19th century; what about the 21st? Sure, rape-and-revenge movies keep popping up (like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” of 2002), but I want to talk about a different kind of female anger. The question that’s rattled around my brain since seeing Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I think of as a perverse retelling of “Sex and the City” — is why Jane (Frances McDormand) could direct her rage in the most petty ways at everyone around her, while the far more oppressed Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) couldn’t express it at all. Unlike their 19th-c. ancestors, these women don’t suffer from all-powerful husbands and fathers — in fact, they’re not entirely sure what they’re suffering from. Jane, a crazily wealthy clothing designer, gets mad at everything but none of it really matters, like when someone steals her parking place. She doesn’t stop to think why she feels so angry, but the most vivid symptom of this rage is that she stops washing her hair — making one of those Holofcener moments onscreen that remains on your frontal lobe for weeks afterward. In the evening she returns home to her husband and goes through the motions. Is the writer-director Holofcener trying to tell us that women can’t deal with their own anger? If so, why doesn’t she show us that women’s anger isn’t always directed at the mundane?
In contrast, Olivia has lots of reasons to be angry, but she opts for passivity. She quit her awful teaching job a while ago and now suffers the indignities of cleaning other people’s homes. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s the only one of the four friends who isn’t married, leading the others to set her up with truly awful blind dates — like Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer, who not only dresses her up in a French maid’s outfit during one of her work days to spice up the sex they have in other people’s beds, but convinces her to share her income with him (because he “helped”). Her passivity is punctuated by the tiniest of rebellions — amassing dozens of samples of face cream from cosmetics counters, smoking a joint at night, and dialing the number of the married man who abruptly dumped her years ago. Why doesn’t Holofcener let Olivia express rage? Is this contrast of the two characters intended to show us the range of vague dissatisfactions in women’s lives? Or is it because Jennifer Aniston is such a totem, an actor who vacillates between the lachrymose and rom-coms, never tackling a more interesting range of complex emotion?
I wish I could say that Holofcener was even angrier than the Brontës when she made this film, because at times you sense it. But she, too, ultimately tries to tidy up the story by stifling their real problems inside the Trojan Horse of a tacked-on resolution at the end. Jane finally articulates her sense of futility and washes her hair, and Olivia goes on a pity date with an overweight, penny-pinching, unattractive client only to find him refreshingly kind, sweet … and rich! The weak, strange concluding scenes in the film — so eager to reassure us that the future will be better than the past we’ve witnessed — make for a modern twist on the Brontës’ use of romance to sugar-coat their messages.
What Holofcener has really put her finger on is a new Problem That Has No Name. But because she can’t name it, her slapdash resolution can’t work; Anne Brontë had the great benefit of being able to name her problem. Now that we proclaim women to be equal to men, feminism to be dead, and all our female characters to be mild-mannered, what happens to women’s anger? The four women in “Friends With Money” see their anger misdirected, turned into an strange kind of comedy, and diluted with the need for an ending to the story. I guess that Problem will just continue on undiagnosed, quietly eating away at women who don’t feel they have a good reason to be angry.