The outcry was big when Edward Colston went for a swim. This is against history! This will make us forget, not reflect! But will it? A new kind of, yes, period drama suggests otherwise. With its own retelling of history, toppling its own statues, it is unashamedly presentist. Like Rhodes Must Fall it forces us to rethink what we want from the past, and to acknowledge that, in important ways, we’re bound to look at what was from the point of view of what is.
From Lady Macbeth to The Favourite, The Nightingale, and most recently The Great: all of these — sometimes comically, sometimes distressingly — offer a take on history different from what cinema audiences (or lockdown couch potatoes) would expect of films and shows set in seventeen-hundred-something. Their unorthodoxy has put a candidly impertinent question-mark after the word “history.” Is that still period drama?
In 2016 director William Oldroyd gave us Lady Macbeth, starring a captivating Florence Pugh in the lead. This is a dark, rural Victorian-era tale (loosely based on the 1865 Nikolai Leskov novella, adapted for the screen by Alice Birch) set in the claustrophobic setting of an oppressive, loveless marriage. What stuck, apart from a range of arresting character portraits and performances, was that — as Guardian reviewer Steven Rose put it — there were “practically more characters of colour in Lady Macbeth than there are in all the Austens, Dickenses and Downtons put together.” It wasn’t long before the matter went from observation to “controversy.” Was this historically accurate? Was it not deviating too far from the original text?
As usual, a closer look served as a gentle reminder of the fact that, very much to the contrary, Downton Abbey and co had frankly tended to systematically whitewash. Amma Asante’s 2013 Belle had of course already proven what serious period drama centring on black history can look like. But the reception of the — in this regard — much less ambitious Lady Macbeth, three years later, revealed how historical accuracy could serve as a proxy for prejudice against adding in supposed “unlikely” figures — and how the white normality of the Julian Fellowes universe was still stuck in cultural imagination.
Whitewashed history tends to go unnoticed because most audiences fall for the comfortable option of assuming that “that’s just what it was like back then.” So Lady Macbeth’s screenplay and casting did that for us: it offered proof of the alternative, but also a refreshing take on the dusty cottage industry — pace Colin Firth’s irresistible Mr.-Darcy-stare in Pride and Prejudice — of period drama. It seemed to ask: why don’t we just do it this way? Why does the genre have to be true to what was its own version of history all along?
An own version of history indeed. What Lady Macbeth hinted at, 2018’s The Favourite took to another level. We’re in early 18th century this time around, but this is no Joe Wright but a Yorgos Lanthimos. Set in an era in which people would do a lot for the privilege of attending a pineapple tasting, a magisterial Olivia Colman demonstrates to her audience that a serious absence of masculine ego works fantastically well. This wryly eccentric drama, complete with duck racing and ridiculously sumptuous palace life, but also an above-average amount of love for rodents and women, sets a whole other tone.
But then, yet again, there was good old Lord Dusty MacBookshelf. This time debate ensued on whether Queen Anne’s lesbianism depicted in The Favourite was true to the book. So? Ophelia Field, writing for the New Statesman, put the chatter to rest. While “there is no historical evidence for such carnal pleasures having been enjoyed,” she writes, “there is no way to rule them out categorically and that is the beauty of a fictionalisation.” But, a pretty awesome dance-off scene aside, the film does more than fictionalise by filling in the gaps of history-writing: “Lesbian love affairs leave notoriously fewer traces – such as illegitimate bastard children – on the historical bedsheets,” Field writes. And this is crucial: The Favourite may have messed with the chronicler’s quill, but it also exposed that which took place but simply less so in the diaries of men: the life of women.
In 2019 another smashing flick brought a rarely-told story to the big screen. But The Nightingale was not funny. In fact it was one of those films you may have walked out of because you just couldn’t handle it — though not because it wasn’t an excellent production. The Nightingale is excellent, but in a grim, exacting way. Jennifer Kent, who previously brought us the slightly less pointed The Babadook, takes us to a place I must confess I’ve never ever seen filmed: 19th century Tasmania, then still known as penal colony Van Diemen’s Land. A magnificent duo of Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr in the lead, alongside a Sam Claflin so frightening you forget to breathe, perform an intense struggle that’s both a powerfully interpretive and symbolic. The Nightingale is an in-your-face reckless portrayal of Australia’s brutal colonial history, arrestingly alive to gender, race, and colonial identities.
With The Nightingale the issue is slightly different than with The Favourite: historical accuracy is not taken more or less loosely for comical effect, but to allow the film to weave the brutal shock of colonial reality into the story of a female ex-convict taking revenge on her oppressors. This is historical fiction, not a bending of details or a filling in of gaps. And still: like The Favourite, this is history that makes us think and feel — and its exaggerations, inventions, and spins are key to that.
Finally, one more historically crazy accurate production: The Great. Written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara together with Vanessa Alexander, this 2020 Hulu mini-series starring Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult (the boy from About a Boy) as Emperor Peter III of Russia nails it from minute one. This self-styled “occasionally true story” made lockdown a bit more bearable.
In it, we follow the story of Catherine who leaves her native Germany to marry Emperor Peter. Catherine had always wanted a bear for a pet, but Peter cares more about shooting “fucking ducks” than respecting women’s wishes. Although certainly less well-paced than The Favourite, sometimes indeed coming across as its “watered-down distillation”,and honestly a bit heavy on the vulgarisms, The Great still passes on the heirloom of period drama that makes you stop and wonder why the occasionally untrue bits still resonate. As McNamara explained his motivation contra period drama: “If I have to watch people tie their shoes with ribbons, I want to put a gun to my head. I think that was the thing.”
There is a theme in all this. Whether hilarious or sad, uncomfortable or scary, what Lady Macbeth, The Favourite, The Nightingale, and The Great all have in common is that none of them even try to make us relive an authentic version of the past. They make it obvious that they’ll disappoint that notion: but what they offer in its stead might well be richer. They amplify silenced voices, and they visualise what it looks like when present and past engage in conversation. They make us laugh, puzzle us, frighten us precisely where they go off record: where they remind us that it is inevitably from the present that we’re bound to look at the past. It’s as if in these portrayals the past were mocking the present, exposing its point of view by staring right back at us.
While Rhodes Must Fall aims to rectify inaccurate representations of an imperial, racist past, the point of the new period drama is a different one. Where the former intends to remove distortions, the latter wants to “distort back”. But they have something crucial in common: they challenge and unsettle collective memory from the point of view of the present. They both propose new ways of looking at the old and — the past as we chose to see it looking back at us — old ways of looking at the new. Both seriously engage with history in order to make a point that has always mattered — but that needs to be made again today.