Once Hollywood’s reliably square crowd-pleaser, historic films are undergoing a radical shift—and becoming cinema’s most boundary-pushing genre
‘It was like watching a Regency selfie’ an anonymous Amazon reviewer decries of Emma., the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel. Not usually the first port of call for nuanced or insightful film analysis, the Amazon comments section can nevertheless dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom, and this gibe inadvertently finds its finger on the pulse. The period piece, that most fossilized of genres, is evolving. Emma., the directorial debut of photographer Autumn de Wilde, is just one in a series of recent films flipping the traditional costume drama on its head. This new breed of period piece has a Gen Z sensibility styled through a millennial’s attention to aesthetic. It explodes the staid, white, heteronormative model of the period dramas of the 1990s and 2000s, and embraces absurdity, cynicism, anachronism, and comedy. Stuffed shirt historical accuracy is out, pop soundtracks and f-bombs are in.
The period film is a Hollywood stalwart. Successful iterations usually tell a familiar story, such as a literary adaptation or historical biopic (bonus points for royalty), leaving the audience free to focus in on things like set design and costume. At the heart of the period appeal lies a certain nostalgia for a way of life that feels simpler (or at least better dressed) than our own. Always popular, by the early 2000s the period film had reached new heights. As the Merchant Ivory heyday and 1990s Austenmania gave way to a new class of glossy, Oscar-friendly royal biopics and historical dramas, genre conventions crystalized, becoming a rigid set of expectations seldom broken in mainstream Hollywood. Period films were restrained. They were stately. And they almost always centered around the lives of the white, wealthy, and heterosexual. Viewers grew accustomed to a certain look and feel to period productions, and historical accuracy became a lightning rod around which they were assessed.
When a film broke with convention, as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette did in 2006, retribution was swift and decisive: boos at the Cannes Film Festival and a tepid reception from critics and viewers followed (the film has since undergone a critical reassessment and become a cult classic). Whether it was the famous Chuck Taylors hidden amongst the kitten heels, the bombastic ’80s guitar riffs rocking the mirrors of Versailles, or the accents more befitting for American high-schoolers than French royalty, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was simply too much for viewers hot off the heels of 2005’s massively successful and decidedly more traditional take on Pride and Prejudice. However, Marie Antoinette would feel right at home alongside today’s aestheticized, anachronistic period piece. It’s not difficult to trace a line from the post-punk confection of Coppola’s Versailles to de Wilde’s candy-colored Regency England in Emma.
Emma. announces itself as a period film in its very title (“There’s a period at the end of Emma. because it’s a period film” de Wilde has explained, in what can only be imagined as a ‘duh’ tone). Yet the added punctuation also signals an aesthetic departure from the genre and from the source material; a playful, self-aware move that fits in neatly with the film’s youthful appeal. This self-awareness extends to its eponymous character. Emma (trendy up-and-comer Anya Taylor-Joy), like Emma., is highly attuned to appearances, adept at using her wit, charm, and intimidatingly color-coordinated wardrobe to manipulate the desired response from her audience. Never Austen’s easiest character to root for–“a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” as Austen herself admitted–Taylor-Joy’s iteration relishes in Emma’s snobbery and callousness in a way that other actors, such as 1996’s breezy Gwyneth Paltrow, have not dared. If the traditional period heroine is kindly, perhaps a little strong-willed but ultimately a good girl, then 2020’s Emma with her glassy eyes and just-this-side-of mean girl barbs inhabits a greyer zone.
If Marie Antoinette preceded Emma. in aesthetic and temperament, then it also preceded The Favourite in sheer audacity. Loosely based on Queen Anne’s liaisons with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail Hill, Sarah’s social-climbing cousin, in early 18th century England, The Favourite, like Marie Antoinette, works to create a mood around a specific moment in time rather than an accurate depiction of the era. It is also not afraid to dabble in deliberate anachronism, relishing in director Yorgos Lanthimos’ signature madcap, surreal style peppered with a healthy dose of pitch-black humor. Coppola’s Versailles is absurd in its over-the-top opulence. Queen Anne’s royal court is just plain absurd. The courtiers race ducks and lob fruit at naked men for fun, characters are shot at or pushed unceremoniously into the mud (‘The Mud Stinks’ a title card helpfully explains), and Anne herself mothers 17 baby bunny rabbits as stand-ins for the 17 children she has lost to miscarriage. Characters take part in wild dance-offs (they even vogue), eat and vomit up ahistorical blue birthday cake, employ not-yet-invented wheelchairs, and are ‘cuntstruck’ rather than lovestruck.
Questions of the film’s historical accuracy, particularly around its lesbian relationships, immediately became a topic of fierce debate. But whether or not Queen Anne actually engaged in these relationships is beside the point–the fact that the film was willing to explore the idea so explicitly was, in itself, unusual. When homosexual relationships do appear in mainstream period cinema, they are often addressed obliquely–a glance here, a touch there, a coded line never fully explained–or serve as tragic B-plots to the heterosexual main line. Not ‘I like it when she puts her tongue inside of me,’ as Anne quips without a hint of coyness. The film treats its central love triangle matter-of-factly and without shame or pathos. This is not a tale of doomed passion set against a backdrop of restrictive homophobia; Anne’s sexual appetite is just another aspect of court life that Sarah and Abigail must navigate.
For a film so eager to disrupt traditional period depictions of gender and sexuality, one area where The Favourite falls short is its representations of race. Not a single actor of color plays a significant role in the film. Although this is probably historically accurate (whilst there was a substantial Black population in England at the time, it’s unlikely that they would have held major roles in Anne’s court), accuracy is hardly a concern throughout the rest of the film and it’s a shame that Lanthimos’ irreverent approach did not stretch to include a more diverse cast.
The veneer of whiteness in period cinema is cracking elsewhere, however, as 2020’s The Personal History of David Copperfield demonstrates. Director Armando Iannucci had British-Indian actor Dev Patel in mind for the titular character from the start and ultimately decided to adopt a completely colorblind approach to casting. “I just saw it as, ‘Why can’t I choose from 100 percent of the acting community available?’” Iannucci explained. This results in a significantly more diverse cast of characters than in Charles Dickens’ original novel and illustrates a marked departure from the usual approach to race in period cinema.
David Copperfield diverges from the period norm in other ways as well. Like The Favourite, it revels in absurdity and overt comedy, although its comedy is friendlier and less acerbic than The Favourite’s. It’s also a visual treat, full of sunny colors, inventive scene transitions, and striking set pieces, a far cry from the usual soot-and-street-urchins depiction of Dickensian London. Historical accuracy was never a big concern for Iannucci. “I’m not trying to say this is what 1840s London literally looked like,” he said, “this is my entertainment, and our cast’s entertainment, for the public.” Tony McNamara, co-screenwriter of The Favourite and writer/producer of The Great, TV’s answer to the modern period trend, echoed a similar sentiment. “That was the thing about the dialogue [in The Favourite]–I don’t know how they spoke, so it doesn’t matter to me how they spoke…It’s how I imagined they would speak. And most of all, we wanted it to be funny.”
Perhaps it is this overt recognition of the period piece as entertainment, something to be reshaped and remolded for modern sensibilities rather than as an exacting reenactment of the past, that really sets the new strain of period cinema apart. Emma., The Favourite, and David Copperfield are not afraid to play with the expectations of their genre in pursuit of this aim. Their shift away from accuracy and towards entertainment has been a welcome change in many ways, breathing new life into their genre and allowing for a more open attitude towards sexuality, gender, and race that is long overdue in period productions. And there are signs of the trend continuing, particularly on television: The Great has been renewed for a second season, and Sofia Coppola is currently developing an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country for Apple TV+. Will these shows become the Gen Z Downton Abbey? If the above films are anything to go by, one thing is clear–the period piece is finally shaking the dust out of its skirts.