Nicola here. One of our lockdown activities during this period of self-isolation has been to have a weekly film night (or sometimes a double bill!) it’s been great to catch up with some of the new movies that are out, some TV series I hadn’t yet seen, and some old favourites too. My viewing has included Knives Out, a sort of post-modern Agatha Christie style whodunnit with more twists than a roller coaster and Daniel Craig doing a bizarre accent, and Yesterday, a sweet and funny time -travel romance that I loved.
Costume drama has always been my catnip though, so the first film I streamed was the new version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Wench Andrea has already blogged about the film here so I’m not going to give my own take on it, especially as I agree with practically everything she said! New versions of Jane Austen’s books seem to come along more regularly than trains these days and it’s always interesting to see what new angle can possibly be taken. In the case of Emma, it really did feel like a film for the Instagram generation with every shot so beautifully curated. Unlike some viewers I did enjoy the fact that there wasn’t such an age disparity between Emma and Mr Knightley as there was in the book, and the sexual tension between the two of them was hot enough to burn down a Regency stately home!
Meanwhile over on the TV we’ve had, in swift succession, Andrew Davies’ version of Sanditon, completing one of Jane Austen’s unfinished novels in a way that surely she would not have done herself, and Belgravia, a Victorian-set costume drama by Julian Fellowes. Both have had very mixed reviews. Belgravia had twists aplenty but people were always going to compare it to Downton Abbey, but I must admit I like Gosford Park the best of Julian Fellowes’ creations. Sanditon caused huge controversy. Some people loved it but hated the ending; others didn’t like it at all because they felt it wasn’t true to Jane Austen. Some viewers really enjoyed it all. I thought it was great fun and loved the way it had so many Georgette Heyer tropes in it including a classic carriage chase to prevent an elopement.
Which sends me off on a slight tangent. Why aren’t there more films made from Georgette Heyer’s books or based on other historical romances? Is it because they have to be “literary” adaptations in order to be considered to have merit? We get Austen and Thackeray and the Brontes, which is great, but wouldn’t it be interesting to have something different? And whilst I don’t dispute either Andrew Davies or Julian Fellowes ability with a screenplay, it might be refreshing if someone else got a chance.
Against the theory of costume dramas needing to be based on literary books is the fact that there have been adaptations of Phillipa Gregory’s hugely successful novels and also series such as the Borgias and Versailles, with varying degrees of historical accuracy.
Anyway, all this movie-watching set me wondering whether costume dramas are still as good as in “the old days.” I suspect that I view older films and TV shows with a sort of nostalgia, especially if they were childhood or other favourites. I adored the first TV version of Poldark when I was a child but I don’t know if it would stand up to scrutiny now even if I will always feel affection for it. There’s recently been a brilliant BBC TV series with the film critic Mark Kermode called “Secrets of Cinema” where he examines different styles of film, from spy movies to horror, to romantic comedies. It’s fascinating to watch him explore the themes of these different genres and the programme he made about historical films was no exception. From Charles Laughton as Henry VIII in the 1930s film The Private Life of Henry VIII to Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne in The Favourite, he considered our obsession with British history as a huge soap opera type story.
One of the popular historic periods he talked about was the Tudors, and there were some classic films there – A Man for all Seasons, The Sea Hawk, Anne of a Thousand Days and of course the many variations on the stories of Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth I. Elizabeth is a perennially fascinating character – I’ve written abut her myself in my new book The Forgotten Sister. To me Elizabeth at the movies feels a bit like Jane Austen at the movies – there’s always a new version coming along!
Whether the old costume dramas are better than the new ones probably comes down to storytelling in the end. It doesn’t matter if a book or a movie or a TV series is new or an old favourite. It’s all about the characters, the story and how we relate to it. For me, humour in a film is usually a bonus. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Emma, and of course Jane Austen’s original books have wonderful dialogue and dry humour in them. It probably explains why I preferred Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love to his role as Robert Dudley in the 1998 film Elizabeth: Shakespeare in Love was funny and Judi Dench stole the show as Elizabeth I.
Yesterday the hashtag #5PerfectMovies was trending on Twitter. Not many of the nominations I saw were for historical shows or movies so I thought it would be fun to do our own version here and ask for your five (or whatever number you like) favourite – or perfect – historical films and shows. So whether that’s Robin Hood, Victoria or The Vikings, please share your choices!