Applaud Hatefully or Notice Carefully: The Two Types of Period Pieces
All historical dramas are not period dramas, although all historical dramas are, by necessity, “of a period.” For today’s purposes, let us agree that “period dramas” must take place somewhere between the “swashbuckling” era and the Edwardians. Set your drama any earlier than the swashbucklers (which I take to cover global historical eras of piracy and the English Civil War) and it exits the period drama genre. This is a difficult call, of course, and necessarily excludes some otherwise-strong contenders for entry into the canon like Shakespeare in Love, but it has to be done, otherwise we will have to admit the Tudors, and the genre would become ungainly. Beginning at swashbuckling, which is a tidy generation or two away from Austenian drawing-room drama, incorporating the Georgians, the Victorians, your farces, your bildungsromans, and drawing to a tidy close after the First World War. In between the swashbuckler and the buckled shoe you have your period dramas.
Period dramas must furthermore take place primarily indoors, usually in or near an imperial core. The Terror, for example, is not a period drama because the action is primarily set outdoors and in a disputed colonial territory, even though it takes place within the appropriate historical period.
Among those who enjoy period dramas as a genre, I believe the audience can be further subdivided into two principle parts. Accounting for some overlap, of course, and recognizing that all generalizations by design fail to account for several meaningful distinctions, I propose the two primary and distinct subtypes of period pieces are as follows:
“I must clap for my enemy or risk falling afoul of a small social nicety, which would ruin me forever. But how I hate him, and how I hope for his downfall!,” and
“I have noticed you noticing me.”
The chief pleasure for the viewer of the first kind of period drama is resentful incongruity. “I hate Mozart, but I must pretend to love Mozart so I can befriend him, find what animates his genius, and destroy it.” Highbrow examples include Barry Lyndon, Tom Jones, The Leopard, and Billy Budd. Middlebrow examples include Amadeus, The Duellists, The Favourite, the Malkovich Dangerous Liaisons, the recent Lost Illusions, Vanity Fair (either the Reese Witherspoon or Olivia Cooke version). Lowbrow examples include Chéri, Harlots, Versailles, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Quills.
In this genre women are most often conniving, while men are either hateful and elderly, beautiful and useless, or beautiful and venal. Partisans of this subtype likely also enjoy the work, but not the politics, of Whit Stillman. They may or may not like the Coppola Marie Antionette. They want to see a jaded viscountess forcing a smile while plotting ruin in her heart. They want to see a journalist with social pretensions adopt a wicked pen name, or applaud his social rival with the angriest expression imaginable. The runtime is usually between two and two-and-a-half hours. Often they are adapted from Balzac, Thackeray, Colette, Meyer-Förster, or Trollope. The cast is crowded, and the romantic storylines, if any, either run short and satirical or long and bleak. Heavy on style, “debauched” party scenes (bonus points if they are shot tableaux-style), fate of the social climber, a likely detour into the judicial system.
The chief pleasure for the viewer of the second kind of period genre is the panopticon, the pleasure of watching someone being looked-at, of wondering whether they are being looked at in any given instance, and if so whether or not they are being accurately observed by the object of their affection. They seek to answer the question, “What if a man looked at you very carefully for a very, very long time?” They care about the eventual collision of mutually-sympathetic restraints, and about edging.
Highbrow examples include The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress, Passione d’amore, Age of Innocence, Persuasion, The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg, Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. If we could include Phantom Thread, we would, but it has too many cars in it. Middlebrow examples include A Room With A View, the Johnny Lee Miller Emma, Maurice, The Remains of the Day, North and South, Belle. Lowbrow examples include Bright Star, Lark Rise to Candleford, Bridgerton, Gigi (non-musical), Wilde. Adapted from Austen, a Brontë, occasionally an Eliot or Dickens.
There are other meaningful subtypes of the genre, like Homosexuality breeds communism among the English ruling class (Another Country, some of Le Carré, the Tilda Swinton Edward II), Whimsical, wholesome woman sets all right (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, either of the movies based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, Cold Comfort Farm), Unlikely Friendship With Queen Victoria (Mrs. Brown, Victoria & Abdul, The Mudlark), Picnic At Hanging Rock (same), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (same).
But the general principle holds: Either you want to see a lot of people in fussy breeches be very, very polite to their enemies, and for everyone’s motivations and emotions to be further fractalized and subdivided ad infinitum, or you want to see a lot of people in fussy breeches come to appreciate, in increasingly nice detail, the finer points of an ordinary-looking woman’s personality, and for all emotions to drive towards the same thrilling and cumulative end. Clap, or notice.