There’s a clichéd image that immediately pops into mind when someone mentions “period” films, but there’s more to this genre than hoop skirts chandeliers and knick-knacks. Art directors and costume designers deservedly get immediate attention, but the goal of a worthy period film is to capture not only the sights and sounds of a bygone time, but to immerse one in the speech rhythms, morals and attitudes, as well as suggest the touch of a glove or the atmosphere of a room. One should be able to imagine all five senses at work, to be there, in another world, totally immersed and removed from modern life happening away from the screen.
It’s a challenge – avoiding anachronisms – including language and manners, capturing the way people might have interacted with each other. In addition, buildings that didn’t exist at the time the story takes place must be scrubbed along with making sure there are no antennas or sports cars parked in the background. The lighting has to be right, the food served epoch-appropriate, and societal hierarchy and protocol accurate.
There are some great films that translate their period perfectly simply because they were made during that period- those are not what I’m looking for here. To qualify, the creation must be of another time and place, always in the past (otherwise we’re heading into invalidated sci-fi territory), and do what films are supposed to do; that is, pluck us from our known reality and drop us into a detailed foreign era to experience life as it once was lived.
Here are five that succeed on every level, so faithful and detailed to the eras they portray that you feel that you’re there:
Age of Innocence – Martin Scorsese (1993)
Rigid does not begin to describe the traditional life of New York’s upper crust in the late 19th Century. Scorsese envelopes us with detail, physical and moral, of all that is expected from inhabitants of the so-called Gilded Age. From the precision setting of a dining table at the opening of the film to the perceived chaos caused by an engaged lawyer’s infatuation with a divorced countess, the story unfolds through gossip, letters delivered, and social events attended. It’s an adjustment for iGen audiences who simply tweet what they think, but this was life in the pressure cooker of genteel living. It’s interesting to note that Scorsese’s Gangs of New York takes place around the same time and provides night and day contrast between the haves and have-nots. Hypnotic and surprisingly sexually charged.
Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson (1997)
Risking whiplash, we move to the Seventies where self-control went through the window, along with décor and fashion sense. PTA uses the porn industry to illustrate the hedonism that the age of peace and love morphed into, and it works perfectly. This was a period of flared pants (except at the constricting crotch), platform shoes, prolific drug use and XXX films playing in regular movie houses. Anderson captures the era perfectly in his pacing, soundtrack and “what the f**k does it look like I’m doin” attitude. Also consider the cast, mostly unknown except for “Marky Mark” in his screen lead debut as Dirk Diggler, who are now on the acting A-list. This makes viewing the film again all the more fun. By the way, Julianne Moore was robbed of a Supporting Oscar for her complex portrayal of porn queen, Amber Waves (love it).
Mon Oncle Antoine – Claude Jutra (1971)
This is rural Quebec in the throes of social change in 1949, known as the Quiet Revolution, when everything from the Church to politicians were scrutinized and summarily ignored in the attempt of cultural self-preservation. Jutra’s film portrays the event by way of a small town on the verge of a miner’s strike, and his skillful illustration of that microcosm is the reason his film consistently lands in the first position of the best of Canadian cinema. As a matter of fact, the environment onscreen is so authentic and effective, you may need to turn off the air conditioning and put on a jacket. Criterion wisely released a collector’s edition several years ago. Find it.
Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick (1975)
When they told Kubrick that one could not film using just candlelight, he obviously thought, “Just watch me,” and the 18th Century Europe never looked more authentic. Or sumptuous. His take on Thackeray’s satirical novel of an Irish hothead on the social climb for revenge is far more serious than the book, but I’m assuming Kubrick didn’t want to remake Tom Jones. What we have is visually and aurally heavenly. The film was under-appreciated during its initial release, but has since been cited increasingly as Kubrick’s most perfect film. As usual, his selections for the soundtrack, a huge hit all on its own at the time, are spot-on.
Far From Heaven – Todd Haynes (2002)
Todd Haynes scores a knockout with his Sirkian Fifties drama that addresses race, sexual orientation and gender inequality all wrapped–up in the Mid-Century Modern décor. The suburbs had just emerged as the ideal way to live and raise a family, but redesigning the clothing and furniture was an easier task than accepting more progressive and accepting ideals. Cathy Whitaker – Julianne Moore, yessir, robbed again of a Best Actress Oscar – and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid) have made it to the pinnacle of 50s successful living when a series of personal events shatters the local etiquette. It’s a stunning Fifties-style melodrama that seizes one like quicksand, and when we emerge at the end, we realize the matters of the heart that caused their downfall have, mostly, yet to be resolved completely to this day. Heavenly on the surface, but far from heaven, indeed.
Note to readers: I have about ten more genres upcoming, including Fantasy, Horror, LitFlicks and the Supernatural. If you have any suggestions on a topic you might want explored, please comment below. I’ll happily take on any challenge.