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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

16 May 2008

Historical Movies on My Mind: Are They Real, or Are They Miramax?

To write your very own movie trailer, fill in the blanks and pick one of the options listed:

In a (world/time/era)
when _____________,
(ONE man/ONE woman/ONE-name-of-your-own-choosing) __________________.


Or you can click here to hear how they managed it for the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice.

But even if you didn't click, you're doubtless entirely familiar with that throaty male voice coaxing us to distant worlds and trumpeting his admiration for that ONE defier of convention. If I had a nickel for every time that voice has stroked a movie-goer's sensibilities, I'd quit checking my sales figures, buy a modest river-view chateau in Burgundy, and retire to it.

When did movie trailers all start using that in-a-world formula, anyway?

How did they come up with that particular version of gauzy-chintzy-Miramax-arthouse-speak?

And what does it mean as a way of seeing history?

"The Miramax version," as we call it at our house, makes a distant and unfamiliar past apprehensible by spreading yummy detail on the screen as though frosting a birthday cake. After which it funnels its conflicts through a sort of pastry tube -- the lines, gestures, and especially the facial expressions of a rebellious lead character who's pretty much who we would have been if we'd lived in his or her world/world/time/era and had a century or two of historical experience and hindsight.

And why not, I ask myself. After all, everyone loves rebels and free-thinkers. What better, safer, more delicious, entertaining, and escapist way of dreaming successful rebellion than via a kind of implicit time travel, a Mira-mishmash of the elegance of the past and the freer ideas of the present?

And yet... it bothers me. I don't like thinking that my own historical authorial voice is another version of Mr. Trailerman's.

But I do think it's possible to learn how to get beyond the worst excesses of that kind of culinary approach to historical fiction -- in a small way by comparing aspects of the 2005 and 1995 P&P's.

Or anyway (as so often happens), I got nudged in that direction recently while I was watching the Knightley/Macfadyen P&P on DVD, when my husband Michael wandered into the living room to get something, stared for some minutes at Kiera Knightley on the TV screen, muttered that "no one made that facial expression during the Regency," and wandered out again.

Wild exaggeration, of course, but there's also a ring of truth to it.

After all, are any of us really the "lords and owners of [our] faces," as the Shakespeare sonnet has it? Because while it's physically possible to make any facial expression at any time, in truth even our smiles and frowns have a certain historical component to them as well.

For don't we all learn to find our best faces, postures, and ways to look in our clothing from the popular images and tastes of our time? In a sense, we all create ourselves in accordance with the rules and also the proscriptions of our eras.

And so, for example, Jennifer Ehle's small, contained, yet slightly ingratiating 1995 Lizzy Bennet smile has a lot in common with this early 19th century image by Sir Thomas Lawrence (yes, it's the painting NAL took the cover of The Slightest Provocation from). Its sweetness isn't exactly of our times, I think, and I feel it as a bit foreign, even the slightest bit mysterious.

Whereas the bold, dreamy, pouty expression Keira Knightley was no doubt directed to make seems to me to be purely of the fan and fashion photography of our own times. Which might be more immediately recognizable for the movie-goer. But for me the loss of mystery far outweighs the gain in familiarity. Because a really good story always has its elements of mystery, an ongoing buzz of wonderment about how its characters came to be who they are and what this means for what they'll do next.

I found myself wondering about Ehle's smile even as I found myself trying to puzzle out what it would be like to walk three miles to Netherfield in what Martin Amis called her "egg-cozy" dresses with the evident corseting beneath them -- while I found no mystery whatever in those sweet, summery, drifty, easy-fitting things Knightley flitted around in. (Well, easy-fitting if you're Keira Knightley, anyway.)

Watching the 1995 (Ehle/Firth) Pride and Prejudice, I found a part of me wanting to reach out to feel the physical stresses and strains as well as the emotional adjustments it would have taken to spend twenty years growing up to be Lizzy Bennet. Much as, when I'm writing, I want to find ways to show how clothes and manners, furniture and vocabulary and all the rest of it shape the characters I'm trying to create. I want my writing, as well as my movie-going, to reach out over a gap of time. And though of course I get it wrong a lot of the time, I guess I think the risks are worth it, and I know I'll always opt for strangeness, for the past that's a foreign country, where "they do things differently".

Some of these are new thoughts for me, and somewhat half-cooked as yet.

But I'd like to write more about period movies and the ways they're like and unlike historical fiction.

Please share your thoughts on the ones you've loved, the ones you've hated, and how you want a film-maker (or a historical romance writer or historical novelist) to negotiate these intriguing questions of familiarity and distance.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I adore the 1995 P&P as well as the 1995 Persuasion because I felt while I was watching them that I had been given a glimpse of what life might have been like in the early 19th century. Whereas the most recent versions were highly glossy and more well-lit than anything else. It was very clear that the Keira Knightley version of P&P was a Hollywood film.

For that same reason, I love the Lion in Winter with Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn, even with her idiosyncratic syntax. I still felt that the people in that movie were probably a little dirty and smelly.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Though actually the 1995 P&P has remarkable research and consulting credits, Elizabeth, including Emma Thompson and Jenny Uglow (esteemed biographer of Hogarth, Mrs. Gaskell... the list goes on and on).

I think director Joe Wright is great at creating big canvases and moving people around them. It's just that, imo, in this conception the people he moves around are tinkered with to be too much like us. None of the rectitude, the toughness, and the flaws that Jane Austen gives her people, most particularly Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. In this production, they may seem inadequate, but we kept getting those sneak peeks at all those private family hugs, so as to show nobody really meant to be mean to everybody.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

This is a little off-topic, but bear with me. In a French cinema class (19th c - WWII) we saw a film made in the 30s, but set in an earlier time period, earlier enough to require period costumes. (sorry, details escaping me). Anyway, a lot of the extras were dressed in 1930s clothes, which contemporary audiences wouldn't have noticed, but in 2004, we did because it was not *our* contemporary dress. Apparently this happened quite a bit.

I wonder if it's not the same phenomenon? Keira Knightly as Lizzy Bennet with contemporary facial expressions, etc...most audiences wouldn't notice, at least American audiences who hadn't seen the Ehle/Firth version. Maybe it's a function of the filmmakers, too: BBC vs. Hollywood.

Now I want to go back and watch Emma, both the Gwyneth Paltrow and the Kate Beckinsale versions and see if I notice other such things...

8:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great topic, Pam! I love historical movies. As with historical fiction, I think the best often say something about the time in which the story is made/written as well as that in which it set (which isn't to say that they're costume dramas with modern characters in period dress, but that there are thematic echoes between the eras).

I actually really like the 1995 and 2005 "Pride and Prejudices," as well as the Garson/Olivier version. I get different things from each. For me, the 2005 version really brought home Lizzy's genuine fear that her family (even her father) will pressure her into marrying Mr. Collins, which dramatizing the historical position of a woman without a fortune in a very true to life way. imo.

A couple of nights ago, I watched one of my favorite historical films, "An Ideal Husband," for the I-don't-how-manyth time. Another favorite is "Shakespeare in Love." Interestingly, the actors in it ring very true to my contemporary actor friends. But then so do the actors in the play "Wild Oats," which was written in the 18th century.

8:46 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Ha Jessica! I'm a '30s junkie and have rolled my eyes many times when watching movies set during WWI, yet the characters are wearing drop-waists and backless gowns.

I'm in the minority, but I found PP05 to be gritty, earthy and sensual. I could just smell the sweat and grime of dancing bodies in the country dance scene. I could feel the texture of Darcy's hands whenever he touched Elizabeth. The excitement of Lydia and Kitty when they watched the regiments, etc! PP95 was too "pretty" for me--which is why I read less and less historicals set in the Regency era. Way too glossy.

A movie I can watch over and over again is the House of Mirth. The theatrical release successfully captured the stultifying, oppressive and suffocating society that caught Lily in its gilded cage. I could feel Lily's yearning and the futile flap of her wings against the bars, her desperation when she sinks lower and lower down the social scale, and finally, that last eternal sleep.

Cold Comfort Farm is another great movie.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Interesting responses, everybody. Thanks.

jessica's post about the 30s costumed extras was interesting. I guess that movie audiences are generally able to filter out bits of contemporaneity better than I am -- in the heavily-costumed movies of the 50s, women always had 1950s hairdos and make-up to go with their period gowns. Not so much now.

I'm a huge fan of the Beckinsale "Emma," btw, partly because the man who plays Mr. Knightley looks period rather than contemporary-dreamy, as Jeremy Northam does in the Paltrow version. (In "Gosford Park," the character Northam plays, the real-life movie star of the time, Ivor Novello, says, "I'm paid to play them," meaning the guests at Gosford. But of course it also referred to Northam being paid to play a dreamboat version of Mr. Knightley. Very sly, smart bit of intertextuality.)

As for the sweat in the 2005 P&P -- it's true, that is there. As is the everyday business of keeping the house at Longbourne going. Brenda Blethyn's Mrs. Bennet in the '05 version is sort of the hidden heroine -- the movie is more sympathetic with her trials than Austen is (if you rent the DVD, you can get this from the supplementary material). I didn't think it worked (again, all those interpolated hugs, to drive home the point), but it is an interesting, thoughtful, self-consciously feminist take.

Must rent "An Ideal Husband." Thanks for the suggestion, Tracy. And the Garson/Olivier P&P comes up soon on my Netflix queue, as soon as we zip through "The Wire."

I loved "The House of Mirth," la belle, though I admit I didn't subject it to a lot of scrutiny. Might want to rent that one again too.

And "Cold Comfort Farm" was an absolute delight. Especially the absolute impossibility of Kate Beckinsale having been able to pack all those adorable little outfits into that one little suitcase. I keep meaning to read the book too.

8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On this subject, the one thing that threw me off of the 1995 P&P was the all too typical "aren't we so adorable being eccentric English villagers" of the rest of the cast (not Firth or Ehle). I've seen too many BBC period productions with this gloss. I start thinking "Monty Python" immediately. The 1995 Mrs. Bennet was the prime example of this. The 1995 Mr. Bennet however was much more "Austin derived" character and superior to 2005.

As for expressions derived from paintings of the day, not so fast. As a painter I can tell you there were popular "simpers" and poses that were as fashionable as our fashion photography of today.
I am more at home with an actor who inhabits the character not worrying about typical poses. We know a lot less about historical private lives than we think we do anyway.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think I very much agree with you about the "simper," anon. I didn't mean to say that Ehle's smile was "authentic," but that it seemed to me constructed in a Georgian way, while Knightley's expression was made out of the styles of our times.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I am so glad to read your DH, Pam, noticed some very contemporary mannerisms 05P&P. I noticed them too---not just smiling, but in a few places I saw a female character SLUMP! It felt like an anachornisms and jerked me out of the movie's place and time just like coming across them in a piece of written dialogue would...

Part of me wants to think a lady of the time would not have publically rolled her eyes, or slumped, or smirked or smiled so boldly in public. . . and a part of me wants to those mannerisms are timeless.

But do I think period mannerisms and facial expressions are something I will pay more attention to in my own writing.

Thanks for a thoughtful post.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Regency romance readers have been at a bit of a disadvantage, Kathrynn, because we've been seeing that same recycled polyester gown on the cover of every trad Regency ever published, with no sense of how it goes over its stays, etc. I only finally figured it out some years ago at RWA National, when I saw our Kalen Hughes wearing the gown she'd made, over stays which I believe she also made. Not only did I finally "get" how the dress was supposed to hang, but how she had to hold herself in it -- and how a gown, or one like it, would have to come off my own character. Anyone who's able to go to any of Kalen's costume workshops is in for a treat and a revelation.

6:45 AM  
Blogger erin said...

I'm a bit late to this party, but having just discovered this website, and being an avid Jane Austen fan, I had to comment. (most of what I say will probably have already been noted, no doubt)

In my opinion, and my husband's (I coerced him into watching the 1995 version once upon a time and he loved it--I also read him the book before), the 1995 P&P is far superior to the '05 version.

We actually went to see the '05 version in the theater and were so disappointed by the end of it that we felt it was a complete waste of our time and money. Why? Simply put, the character development felt shallow, forced, rushed and I honestly didn't care whether Lizzy and Mr. Darcy ended up together or not.

Understanding the difference between a mini-series (as the '95 was) and a Hollywood feature is crucial in this and has tempered my criticism of the '05 version, however, I felt Keira Knightley didn't do the character of Lizzy justice. In short, I didn't believe her.

And I didn't believe Mr. Darcy, either.

I was also highly disappointed that more time wasn't given to developing Wickham, Lydia, Jane, Miss Bingley and Bingley himself--as my husband said, Bingley looked and behaved like a simpleton, and was more comic than I would have liked.

Another reason I love the '95 version, aside from what I felt was better acting and more convincing portrayals of the characters themselves, is that when I re-read the book now (as I have many, many times), in my head, I hear the '95 actors reading.

As far as something directors could do to make their films more realistic? They should rent Ang Lee/Emma Thompson's 'Sense and Sensibility'--wonderful adaptation of the book, in spite of its differences.

12:36 PM  

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