The once stuffy genre has been given a reboot, with emotional truth as important as historical fidelity

  • Modern Toss on period dramas

As Oscar season hots up, the frontrunner in several categories is The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s marvellously mad film about jostling for power in Queen Anne’s court. The film’s success represents Olivia Colman’s elevation to the highest echelons of the movie hierarchy, but if it wins big on 24 February it will also mean a return to favour for a genre largely ignored by the Academy in recent years: the period drama.

Back in the olden days – say, the mid-1990s – period dramas were the perfect career move for actors who feared a fluffy romcom might be too risque. Many actors established their Oscar calibre with an Austen adaptation (Gwyneth Paltrow, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet), a Merchant Ivory production (Helena Bonham Carter, Hugh Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis) or royal biopic (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, at the box office, these films have been the meat and potatoes of British film – reliable, traditional, unexciting – for about as long as the industry has existed. Then, about 10 years ago, period dramas started getting weird – very weird. Screaming the F-word at a string quartet from a palace window weird, or holding a catered birthday party for your 17 bunny-babies weird.

While Lanthimos is about to get the glory, this tone-change was pioneered mostly by a handful of female directors. Period drama had always been unusually interested in women’s inner lives, but films such as Sofia Coppola’spost-punk Marie Antoinette (2006), Jane Campion’s dreamy Keats biopic Bright Star (2009) and Andrea Arnold’s influential Wuthering Heights (2011) took that further. They eschewed the conventions that had long defined the genre in pursuit of a more direct expression of characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Often this involved a rejection of the traditional trappings of romantic drama, as in the 2014 Austrian film Amour Fou, which recounts the real-life story of the suicide pact (or murder-suicide) of 19th-century German poet Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel. In writer-director Jessica Hausner’s deadpan telling, there’s no mistaking the vanity that motivates Heinrich’s supposedly grand, romantic gesture.

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