Hollywood loves a good period piece. That’s been the case for decades and it’s a fact that won’t change in the foreseeable future. But for a while, it seemed as though the period drama had reached a point of saturation. The structure and style of what made it popular had stuck and very few filmmakers were tackling the genre in ways that felt fresh.
Just to be clear before I continue this discussion any further, because of the subjective quality of the term period (indeed, anything in the past fits the bill), much of this article will focus on the most obvious and general form: movies taking place before the 20th century that usually either adapt classical literary material or adapt an historical figure’s life. In other words, it’s the kind of movie that gives costume designers who love designing Early Modern costuming a sure-fire Oscar win (I’m looking at you Jacqueline Durran)
But I digress. In all, period pieces were becoming stale. Biopics of historical figures were a yearly occurrence, every season seemed to have a new Victorian or Regency literary adaptation and if Hollywood was feeling like splashing the cash, they’d give us an elaborate war movie just in time for Awards season. A formula had been found and the scripts wrote themselves. But beginning in the last two years, a new and niche trend is emerging, something which is only growing bigger in 2020. Indeed, it seems this year may be a petri dish for wacky and creative period stylings, and I for one cannot wait.
Rumblings of this new period interpretation appeared first in 2018, when The Favourite launched on the festival circuit. The film was mad, in typical Yorgos Lanthimos form and resistant to the sentimental grandiosity of other royal dramas. It presented the late Stuart period as one of excess and farce, and resurrected a tone not seen since Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. The period drama was now weird and wonderful, something 2020 hopes to give us again in the form of The Green Knight from David Lowery this summer. While still adapting the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the initial trailer shows a warped and twisted tale; a film highly stylised and conceptual while still containing the costuming and set design that we’ve all come to know. With other period pieces and literary adaptions on the horizon, most notably the upcoming Rebecca, I wonder if that artistic style will become the rule rather than the exception. Only time will tell.
But the highly quirky tone isn’t the only thing that’s changed in period pieces, as another encouraging trend is the experimentation in adaptation most specifically in the form of representation. The Green Knight notably features Dev Patel in the lead role, a huge breakthrough for non-white talent in these types of movies. Patel himself caused a bit of a Twitter explosion upon the realisation that he is also currently starring as David Copperfield, making him a possible trailblazer for changing the faces of who represents these characters. Of course, there will be an inevitable backlash from those who claim to require complete historical accuracy in all areas, but the use of non-white actors in these roles provides for such a commendable and interesting artistic statement that it shows the film’s greater ambition beyond simply an account of history.
Ironically, through more diverse casting choices, filmmakers are modernising these pieces while still grounding them in their period setting. It’s a jarring mix, but a welcome one, and it does nothing but make the film more memorable in the process. Greta Gerwig is another filmmaker to inject the modern into the pre-modern world. While her adaptation of Little Women last year did not experiment with diverse casting in the way that upcoming features are, but the way that Gerwig wrote her screenplay indicated a distinctly 21st century voice. The fairer treatment of characters that aren’t Jo highlighted the fourth wave feminist movement of accepting all forms of women as having agency, not necessarily requiring a feminist oriented woman to be a tomboy. Every type of woman deserves to be whoever they want to be, and this inclusive message is right at home in 2020. The ending is also deeply modern, while conforming to Alcott’s period set novel. Gerwig plays with the traditional ending of Jo finding love by adding the caveat that it’s simply the ending of the book that she was forced to write. Gerwig opens up the possibility for Jo to continue her real life independently while still providing the audience with the romantic catharsis of the original novel. It’s an ingenious comment on how modern audiences loves the sentimentalist approach of the classic period drama but acknowledge the inherently problematic and backward nature of them.
It’s clear that through tackling the typically formulaic medium of period drama, sophisticated filmmakers are having a deeply complex conversation with the audience, and the genre.