It’s Time to Take Period Dramas Seriously

Period dramas are iconic. No other genre quite compares. That moment when Elizabeth Bennett calls out Mr Darcy for being an arrogant bigot. Genius. Yes Lizzy, you go girl. Despite their awesomeness, the genre is often followed by a (frankly bemusing) sexist double standard. After all, it’s just a bunch of girly dribble! Isn’t it…?

Period Dramas are often dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ to modern times. I’d argue the opposite. There are far more to period dramas than petticoats, infatuated lovers and giggling girls. The plots often follow strong, multi-dimensional female characters, who are forced to navigate their way through a man’s world. Unfortunately, these women are not born in the 21st century and therefore can not benefit from the #metoo movement. Instead, they are forced to subvert gender stereotypes in subtler ways, making them so compelling to watch.

One of the biggest advocators of the genre is the queen of period drama herself – Keira Knightley. She’s bored of hearing the loaded question; ‘So, another period drama?’. At the London Film Festival BFI screen talks, Keira intelligently noted that “there’s the assumption that they (period dramas) are all the same, and to me they’re different; just because one is a dress and another is a dress doesn’t mean it’s the same movie.”

She continues to defend their connection to current affairs, stating that they are still “very relevant” to the current discourse surrounding gender roles and sexual politics. She astutely acknowledges that there is a ‘a negativity around [period dramas] because predominantly, they’re female.’ This is shockingly accurate. Time and time again, these types of films are repudiated as unrelatable feminine hogwash.

But as Keira rightly says, some of the strongest characters she’s played ‘have been in period roles.’ “Almost every character I’ve played has tried to break out of that image of femininity,” “That’s why I like period films, because it’s such an overt cage you put the woman in. That’s always something I’ve really identified with. I feel like I sit somewhere else.”

People don’t seem to have noticed that period dramas are also evolving. Take Colette, for example. A film based upon one of France’s most celebrated female authors, who was famous for challenging gender stereotypes and breaking the boundaries of sexuality in 1920s Paris. The film features a bisexual protagonist, a lesbian relationship and often touches upon transgender issues and rights in 20th century Europe. All of which are still incredibly relevant in today’s political and social climate.

Like Keira, I am beyond fed-up with listening to people dismiss the likes of Pride and Prejudice as frivolous nonsense. Elizabeth Bennett is a feminist icon. Mr Darcy can shove it. Bring on the 234th remake of Pride and Prejudice and any other films about historical feminist trailblazers.

And to those who complain about the abundance of ‘corset chick flicks’, when the film industry starts creating more believable female characters who pass the basics of the Bechdel test, I’ll stop watching the iconoclasts of period dramas. Or maybe I won’t. Who knows.

©  |  Cheltenham International Film Festival  |  2023