Period dramas are marketed almost exclusively towards women, the only real exceptions being military dramas set in the past, and they often and very unfortunately have a stubbornly misogynistic streak, superficially cloaked as a true representation of the past but in fact an interpretation based on some of the most deeply ingrained misogynistic elements of our contemporary society, norms that dictate that a woman is chiefly concerned with her romantic status and that her romantic status determines her relative social and self worth. There are indications that this is slowly changing. Recently it was announced that a film about the British suffrage movement, entitled Suffragette, is starting production with a cast that includes Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan and other soon-to-be released films such as Belle and Effie Gray focus on historical stories about women challenging the racial, sexual, and marital politics of their day. It's rather significant that all three of these films are based on the lives of historical figures. The advantage of the erroneous designation of the period drama as a women's genre is that more women are able to produce and direct period dramas and as a result create feminist work aimed at a female audience than would otherwise be able to, given the current abysmal gender politics of Hollywood. My list of films that every feminist should see already included a number of great period films, including My Brilliant Career, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Anne of Green Gables, and The Last Mistress - none of them are included on this new list.
Queen Christina (1933)
Greta Garbo's androgynous performance as the (highly fictionalized) Swedish monarch is a tour de force that is astonishingly prescient in its deconstruction of gender definition and its sexual ambiguity. In the film, Queen Christina dresses like a man and declares "I shall die a
bachelor;" she also enters into an illicit sexual liaison, the intimate
beginnings of which occur before her lover realizes that she is female. For that alone, the film is essential for feminists, but the plot also interrogates many crucial ideas about gender and power. Though the plot begins to fray around the edges by the end, Garbo's phenomenal performance and the brilliant exploration of the intersections between male power and royal power make this a vitally important film for feminists.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gone with the Wind becomes increasingly problematic as time goes on and politics evolve, but its thorny, unscrupulous heroine Scarlet O'Hara is one of the most enduringly fascinating of all Hollywood leading ladies. Scarlet is anything but a positive figure - she cheats, lies, abuses, and even kills - but it is made clear throughout the film that she does so not merely to get what she wants. Rather, Scarlet, throughout much of the film, has her back to the wall, and her ability to survive is completely dependent on her willingness to break moral rules. The fact that she both accrues power by unsavory means and is a woman disgusts the men around her, though they themselves break the same rules; for example, Rhett, Kennedy, and even the supposedly incorruptible Ashley raid a shanty town, killing many of its denizens, after Scarlet has been attacked. The gender and power politics in this film are a fascinating study.
The Heiress (1949)
Based on Henry James's novella, Washington Square, this brilliant film stars Olivia de Havilland, in one of her finest performances, as Catherine Sloper, the plain and awkward heiress of the title, whose father (played by the magnificent Ralph Richardson, better known for his theater work) believes that her lover (Montgomery Clift) is only after her for her inheritance. Director William Wyler and writers Ruth and Augustus Goetz refuse to simplify the morally fraught situation, allowing the characters latitude to be both supremely selfish and innocent of their own motives. Few films so fearlessly examine the complexities of love, class, and money in an environment in which women are essentially investments. Like many of the films on this list, The Heiress has a decidedly bitter flavor, one that hardly mitigates the film's greatness.
The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
There are not enough good things in the world to say about auteur Max Ophuls, the director of this extraordinary film and many others equally wonderful. Danielle Darrieux plays the aristocratic lady of the title, so bored in her marriage that she fills her days with the empty pleasures of spending money and thus runs up a mountain of debts. Eager to hide them from her husband, she sells and pretends to have lost a pair of magnificent diamond earrings, originally a wedding present. Through the film, the earrings pass from hand to hand, leaving a whirlpool of intrigue and scandal in their wake, a veritable maelstrom that escalates to irrevocable tragedy. Though the trappings of this film are sumptuously romantic, its characters are as seduced and deceived by them as the film's audience at first viewing. In this film, as in many others, Ophuls presents us with a tragedy that is propelled by a society that keeps women idle and subservient.
My favorite of Visconti's films is this exceedingly bitter and utterly perfect melodrama, very loosely based on the novella by Camillo Boito. Set in the Veneto, just as the Risorgimento reaches its full fervor, the film opens in the La fenice opera house, where the Countess Serpieri meets Austrian officer Franz Mahler in the aftermath of an Italian nationalist demonstration. Though the countess is herself involved in the resistance that intends to aid Garibaldi in his fight against the Austrian occupiers, she soon falls so madly in love with Mahler that she loses all desire for anything other than her lover. Visconti was himself the scion of an ancient noble house, and was known as the Red Count because of his communist sympathies; his painstaking recreation of the world of his recent ancestors, his deft and brilliant examination of Italian politics, and the superb performances of Alida Valli and Farley Granger create together a unique and essential cinematic experience, more akin to an opera than a cinematic melodrama. I highly recommend the Criterion Collection's DVD release of this film, which includes numerous goodies, including documentaries and gorgeous production stills, that cinephiles will love.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Ingmar Bergman, the sovereign of cinematic darkness and misery, presents us with an extraordinary exploration of the female psyche, female sexuality, and sisterhood in this deeply upsetting and yet equally rewarding study of three sisters gathered together in their ancestral home, as one of them slowly succumbs to cancer. The sisters, played by Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, and Ingrid Thulin, are torn by the intricate ties of love and hate that bind them and their simultaneous fear and welcoming of death. Bergman, as always, exposes even the most painful vulnerabilities of his characters, but in a film that focuses so overwhelmingly on the relationships between sisters and that so totally eschews romance (in any sense of the word), this brutal honesty has an inevitably feminist subtext. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist (for which he won an Oscar) is truly gorgeous.
The Bostonians (1984)
This polarizing adaptation of the Henry James novel, a Merchant Ivory production with a brilliant screenplay by frequent collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, stars Vanessa Redgrave as Olive Chancellor, a wealthy spinster who is passionately involved in the nineteenth century feminist movement which fought for both suffrage and more equitable marriage and property laws. She becomes deeply attached to a young and quite innocent charismatic speaker Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), their relationship becoming increasingly tempestuous as Verena's resistance to both the misogyny and sexual magnetism of Olive's cousin Basil Ransom breaks down. Few films focus on nineteenth century feminism and Jhabvala's screenplay quite brilliantly transforms James's misogynistic politics into a more ambiguous political stance, retaining James's almost queasy social reactions to both feminism and lesbianism while subtly subverting the male perspective of the novel.
Howards End (1992)
I never miss an opportunity to tout this marvelous film, Merchant and Ivory's best production, based on my favorite of E. M. Forster's novels. The film depicts the uneasy relationships between the classes in Edwardian England, represented by the Wilcoxes, wealthy industrialists with a terror of scandal, the Schlegel sisters, cultured and intellectual women with a burgeoning interest in feminism, and the Basts, an impoverished couple desperate for some hint of better things. The plot is set into motion when Mrs. Wilcox chooses to leave her beloved house, Howards End, to Margaret Schegel, a choice that has far-reaching consequences for all three families. The cast is stunningly good, including Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West, and the cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts is supremely beautiful.
Sally Potter's film, like Virginia Woolf's novel, is a bit... eccentric, but it is undoubtedly the case that no one, male or female, could pull off the title role except for Tilda Swinton, whose uniquely androgynous persona is ideally suited to the role of an immortal who starts out life as a man and one day continues the course of eternal life as a woman. Swinton is not the only cross-dresser in the cast; Elizabeth I is played by Quentin Crisp, whose performance is as odd as one might expect. Orlando is as much survey of English history as it is deconstruction of both the concepts of gender and of gendered sexuality. I can't say that I wholeheartedly like this movie, but it is undeniably a must-see for feminists.
Little Women (1994)
While previous adaptations were more faithful to the novel, this version is more pointedly political, and - perhaps - more in tune with Louisa May Alcott's own feminist beliefs. Interweaving the events of the novel with details taken from both Alcott's life (her family's involvement in the transcendentalist movement, for example) and the history of the time, this movie manages to address a great deal in its two hours, from emancipation and suffrage to romanticism and the confluence of moral values and relative wealth, while shearing the source material of its more sentimental aspects. Gillian Armstrong (who also directed My Brilliant Career, one of the greatest feminist films of all time) has given us an adaptation that nimbly blends past history and present politics, without hitting one over the head with broad declarations.
Though it is no way the superlative masterpiece that Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure unquestionably is, Michael Winterbottom's film, written by Hossein Amini (who also wrote the screenplay for The Wings of the Dove), is a surprisingly solid adaptation with several scenes that verge on genius. Christopher Eccleston stars as Jude, a working-class man who aspires to better himself by gaining admission to university. His way is barred by an ill-advised marriage, the result of an afternoon's indiscretion, to a woman (Rachel Griffiths) he finds exciting but unsuitable. They separate, but Jude's descent into tragedy is once again set in motion when he sets eyes on his beautiful, fascinating cousin Sue (Kate Winslet). This is surely one of the most upsetting stories ever written or filmed, but its condemnation of what amounts to social servitude, particularly for women but also for men, in a culture that prohibits divorce is damning without being bombastic.
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Jean Pierre Jeunet's World War I drama stars Audrey Tautou as a young woman who firmly believes that her lover (Gaspard Ulliel), though officially dead, is still alive. Part of what makes Mathilde such an unusual character is the fact that. although she has a disability, it's not the focus of the plot. She makes use of it to inspire sympathy, but she feels little sympathy for herself and doesn't allow it to interfere with her mission. The deeply convoluted story rather focuses on Mathilde's determined search for her lover, a search that leads her into closely kept military secrets the revelation of which could result in terrifying consequences for those involved. The film has a deeply romantic sensibility, but one that is undercut with a fleeting and dark sense of humor and bitter reflection on the brutalities and costs of war.
Miss Austen Regrets (2007)
Popular response to this BBC film was not terribly positive, mostly because it doesn't buy into the romantic fantasies that so many have projected onto Jane Austen's enigmatic and seemingly uneventful life that came to an undesirable head in the abysmal Becoming Jane. This film is essentially an imagining of Austen's last days, and her reflections on the past and particularly on her decision not to marry. It's rare for a film to focus on anyone in middle age, particularly a woman, but it's essentially unheard of in period drama, the heroines of which are nearly always young women, and it's even more rare for a film to thoughtfully examine the reasons why a woman might not marry, particularly without creating some tragic motive for not doing so. Olivia Williams is excellent as Austen and the supporting cast includes Greta Scacchi, Tom Hiddleston, and Hugh Bonneville.
The Princess of Montpensier (2009)
One of my absolute favorite films of the past decade (I saw this in the theater twice), Bertrand Tavernier's lush drama stars Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, and Gaspard Ulliel, with a gorgeous score by Philippe Sarde and stunning cinematography by Bruno de Keyzer. Though superficially a romance, The Princess of Montpensier is really concerned with issues of power - political, sexual, physical, and spiritual. Thierry plays the princess of the title, infatuated with the dashing and ultramasculine Duc de Guise (Ulliel) but married unwillingly and for political reasons to the Prince of Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Her extraordinary beauty also attracts the intellectual Count de Chabannes (Wilson), a warrior who eschews war after accidentally killing a pregnant woman, and the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), a decidedly more dangerous potential lover.