February 2011

Rule Britannia!

Hollywood loves nothing more than rewarding the sceptered isle for its Englishness by GINA MCINTYRE

  • From top: <em>Sense and Sensibility</em>, 1995<br><em>Shakespeare in Love</em>, 1998
  • From top: <em>The King’s Speech</em>, 2010<br><em>A Room with a View</em>, 1985
  • From top: <em>Gosford Park</em>, 2001<br><em>Pride and Prejudice</em>, 2005
  • From top: <em>Elizabeth: The Golden Age</em>, 2007<br><em>The Young Victoria</em>, 2009

Any movie enthusiast will tell you: It was the biggest Oscar upset in recent memory. The moment—back in 1999, when the lighthearted romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love stole the coveted Best Picture statuette from Steven Spielberg’s brooding World War II epic Saving Private Ryan—became historic in the annals of the Academy Awards. For days afterward, Industry insiders and entertainment journalists scratched their heads. How could a frothy fantasy about the young Bard and his inspirations claim Hollywood’s top prize over a weighty drama about violent conflict from one of moviedom’s favorite sons?

There were plenty of theories, many centered on the unerring campaign savvy of ruthless Shakespeare producer Harvey Weinstein, whose victory that March night netted the independent-cinema stalwart his first Oscar. But the lesson gleaned from the surprise might have been this: Never underestimate the allure of the English costume drama.

The period piece’s cinematic roots date back almost to the invention of the art form, and when it comes to the Oscars, the genre has long been afforded VIP status. Director Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade, about the lives of the English upper crust, was awarded the Outstanding Production (Best Picture) prize way back in 1934, the same year Charles Laughton took home the Best Actor trophy for his portrayal of the titular monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII.

And of course, in the long march to the night when Shakespeare’s great romance won the hearts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters, plenty of lavish period productions—and the actors who star in them, the directors who helm them and the expert craftspeople who so richly detail their picturesque, evocative settings—have been feted for their excellence in any given year.

Even in this turbulent decade, when dark, troubling films such as Million Dollar Baby and No Country for Old Men have been crowned Best Picture, costume dramas like The Queen (with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in the late 20th century) and The Young Victoria (with Emily Blunt as the ruler at the beginning of her reign) remained strong in the acting and crafts categories, stoically carrying forward the grand, if straight-backed, English tradition.

What’s behind Oscar’s longstanding affection for these high-minded stories about beleaguered monarchs wrestling with legacy or plucky young women struggling against the constraints of a patriarchal society? Are the voters just suckers for a great English accent?

Although there are a number of factors at work, the key, it seems, is in the escapist pleasures these films offer. Yes, they feature the finest actors working at any given era—sirs and dames knighted for their talent, who bring depth and complexity to frosty and imperious lords and ladies. And they allow for impressive movie artistry, explosions of lace, damask and brocade that seem nearly tactile in their intricacy.

Beneath it all, instead of the warring intergalactic robots preferred by teen boys, these films present clashes among upper-class clans or between the upper and lower classes themselves, transporting moviegoers across the centuries to a world governed by rigid moral strictures that left little to chance, limiting certainly but eliminating so much of the moral incertitude that colors contemporary life.

“In a way, it’s pure escapism,” notes actress Helena Bonham Carter, who stars as the Queen Mum in one of the current Oscar season’s darlings, the critically acclaimed drama The King’s Speech. “I personally have always been somewhat in love with the past, with nostalgia,” she says. “As a child, I thought if I could get in the costume dramas inside the television, I’d travel through time. But I think it is an escapism, the idea of a life that was more attractive than it is today.”

It might sound strange, the notion of longing to return to a world that was problematic for the lower classes, women and minorities, especially for American audiences not of English descent. But since so many costume dramas draw from literary classics—Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, E.M. Forster, even Shakespeare—the stories are intensely familiar to all people. Watching them unfold allows moviegoers to drop into these socially fraught eras and enjoy their sweeping vistas and sumptuous appointments without having to physically experience the hardships of life in times past. (“Pre-antibiotics? Jesus! I’d probably be dead if I lived then,” Bonham Carter concedes.)

“I think for audiences—particularly now, when the recession is really biting into the lives of quite ordinary people—to look at a period of history which was much more structured and stratified is sometimes comforting,” says screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his script for 2001’s Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s manor-set murder mystery starring Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon. “It’s rather like going back to the nursery, where there were lots of rules. The advantage of watching it in a drama is that you don’t have to live it. You can enjoy the fact that everyone knows their place, but you don’t have to get up at 4 in the morning to go and do the grates.”

Fellowes has developed the reputation in Hollywood of having an ear for the patter of the aristocracy. The actor turned writer has helped adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s doorstop of a novel Vanity Fair for the big screen, penned 2009’s Young Victoria and, most recently, created the acclaimed BBC series Downton Abbey, which aired on PBS in January and takes place in the two years prior to the first World War.

He describes himself as a fan of the costume drama—Fellowes counts Russia’s 1967 production of War and Peace as a personal favorite—and he says the pleasure for him lies in visiting fictional realms where more genteel social mores are the norm.

“What’s behind Oscar’s longstanding affection for these high-minded stories—are voters just suckers for a great English accent?”

To call Ismail Merchant and James Ivory the fathers of the modern English costume drama would not be an understatement. With 1985’s Room with a View—their film about the romantic exploits of respectable young Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham Carter), who finds herself torn between her obligation to her stoic fiancé (Daniel Day-Lewis) and her feelings for George Emerson (Julian Sands), a gentleman she meets during her stay at an Italian inn—the producer-director team set the standard for prestige films about aristocrats falling in and out of love, grappling with duty and desire in immaculately kept European manor homes.

“I think their films—they did indicate that there was commercial potential for these previously just seen as art-house films,” says Bonham Carter, who calls the filmmakers “eccentric and unorthodox.”

Commercial, yes, but during their heyday, the duo—who collaborated with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala on films including 1992’s Howards End and 1993’s Remains of the Day—also dominated the field at the Academy Awards: Their films received a total of 25 Oscar nominations, though the Best Picture trophy eluded them.

In the wake of the Merchant Ivory productions, Andrew Higson, a professor of theater, film and television at the University of York and the author of Film England: Culturally English Filmmaking Since the 1990s and 2003’s English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama Since 1980, says a new class of costume drama emerged. The result was the “muddy hem” school—primarily taken from Austen’s novels: the BBC’s famed adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which cast Colin Firth as the brooding Mr. Darcy; director Patricia Rozema’s 1999 version of Mansfield Park; and Joe Wright’s 2005 rendering of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley. These films attempted to paint the world of the English past in a slightly more austere fashion but still managed to capture the imagination of the general public and Oscar voters with compelling stories and strong performances—and, of course, meticulous sets and costumes.

“I think you can make a good argument for these films being Hollywood’s antidote to itself, as it were, since Hollywood is so involved in making them,” says Higson. “Rather than fast action cinema with car chases and fights and explosions, you’ve got slow, character-based drama in which romance plays a huge part. You’ve got an appeal to a different sort of audience that is looking for different sorts of pleasures to mainstream Hollywood.”

Academy Award–winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who earned her statuette for the 2007 drama Elizabeth: The Golden Age, has been steeped in the art of drama since childhood. She explains from her home in England that after growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon—the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company and birthplace of its namesake—her decision to pursue a career in theater design and architecture was something close to preordained.

The woman who dressed Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in Edwardian finery for the 2004 J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland and who first dabbled in bustles and corsetry on director Roger Michell’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the BBC says she has gained a new perspective on the appeal of costume drama after spending two years in L.A. working on the upcoming Marvel comic-book movie Thor, directed by longtime collaborator Kenneth Branagh.

“The allure of English and European history is huge, because you don’t have it in L.A. It’s just not there,” Byrne says. “In England, we’re surrounded by architecture and religious history, the monarchy—it’s everywhere you go. Very few people in England live in a new house. They’re all old Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian houses that have been knocked about over the years and refurbished. We’re just embedded in all that history. So, I think for people who don’t have it, to be shown it in a way that isn’t surrounding them is fascinating.”

For his part, Branagh, a four-time Oscar nominee, agrees costume dramas offer “a sensory, sensual treat.” Corresponding by email, he observes, “Costumes help put you right there. A film like Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence—an undervalued masterpiece—makes you feel you’re eating at the same table as the characters, smelling the flowers, touching the table linen. It’s holistic escapism.”

Branagh, though, also points out that like a great film located in any period, costume dramas must tell interesting stories about characters who engage our imaginations. Without that, even the most wondrous, evocative settings would just be glossy empty shells. “The best of these films humanize history,” he writes. “We are all fascinated by the private lives of the rich and powerful, whether it’s the kings and queens of Thor or The King’s Speech. They have better wardrobes but just the same problems.”

GINA MCINTYRE is deputy film editor for the Los Angeles Times. She was schooled in the grand tradition of English manners by her maternal grandmother.


Oscar Fancies the Brits

George Arliss, Disraeli, 1930
Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1934
Victor McLaglen, The Informer, 1936
Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1940
Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend, 1946
Ronald Colman, A Double Life, 1948
Laurence Olivier, Hamlet, 1949
Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1958
David Niven, Separate Tables, 1959
Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady, 1965
Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons, 1967
Peter Finch, Network, 1977
Ben Kingsley, Gandhi, 1983
Daniel Day-Lewis, My Lef t Foot, 1990
Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune, 1991
Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs, 1992
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, 2008

Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind, 1940
Joan Fontaine, Suspicion, 1942
Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver, 1943
Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own, 1947
Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress, 1950
Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1952
Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins, 1965
Julie Christie, Darling, 1966
Maggie Smith, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1970
Glenda Jackson, Women in Love, 1971
Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class, 1974
Jessica Tandy, Driving Ms. Daisy, 1990
Emma Thompson, Howards End, 1993
Helen Mirren, The Queen, 2007
Kate Winslet, The Reader, 2009

Frank Lloyd, The Divine Lady, 1930
Frank Lloyd, Cavalcade, 1934
David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1958
David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia, 1963
Tony Richardson, Tom Jones, 1964
Carol Reed, Oliver! , 1969
John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy, 1970
Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, 1983
Anthony Minghella, The English Patient, 1997
Sam Mendes, American Beauty, 2000
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire, 2009

Roger K. Furse, Hamlet, 1949
Cecil Beaton, Gigi, 1959
Elizabeth Haffenden, Ben-Hur, 1960
Cecil Beaton, My Fair Lady, 1965
Julie Harris, Darling, 1966
Phyllis Dalton, Doctor Zhivago, 1966
Elizabeth Haffenden, A Man for All Seasons, 1967
Joan Bridge, A Man for All Seasons, 1967
Margaret Furse, Anne of the Thousand Days, 1970
Yvonne Blake, Nicholas and Alexandra, 1972
Anthony Powell, Travels with My Aunt, 1973
John Mollo, Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, 1978
Anthony Powell, Death on the Nile, 1979
Anthony Powell, Tess, 1981
John Mollo, Gandhi, 1983
John Bright, A Room with a View, 1987
Jenny Beavan, A Room with a View, 1987
James Acheson, The Last Emperor, 1988
James Acheson, Dangerous Liaisons, 1989
Phyllis Dalton, Henry V, 1990
James Acheson, Restoration, 1996
Sandy Powell, Shakespeare in Love, 1999
Lindy Hemming, Topsy-Turvy, 2000
Janty Yates, Gladiator
Sandy Powell, The Aviator, 2005
Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2008
Michael O'Connor, The Duchess, 2009
Sandy Powell, The Young Victoria, 2010