The Allure of the Past When the Present’s a Bit Grim8 December 2020
Amidst this year’s seemingly endless cycle of bad news, there are moments when quite simply, it all gets a bit much. The need for pure, unadulterated comfort strikes, and it’s moments like these when I slip into my pyjamas, pull up the covers, and type into Netflix the very key to instant, delicious escapism:
pride and prejudice
Much to many Colin Firth fans’ chagrin, it’s the Keira Knightly one I’m after. And it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched it, that scene where Darcy proposes in the rain and insults Elizabeth’s family and she snaps back with ‘um yeah, thanks but no thanks, you arrogant prick’ and he’s nothing short of monumentally crushed gets me EVERY SINGLE TIME. Maybe it’s the gloomy sky, their dishevelled, rain-drenched hair, or the way the camera slowly looms towards the actors’ faces until the very last moment where they’re about to kiss, but they can’t (just yet!). Whatever the reason, this moment never fails to steal my breath for just a second or two. It’s a standard romantic rejection scene, yet it crackles with an electricity that makes it far more memorable than most contemporary rom-coms. There’s something about this encounter that immediately pulls me out of the present, thrusting me into a fairytale world where romance is the great struggle, the great triumph, the great goal of life: the perfect reprieve for moments like now, when real life feels just a little too cruel, and far too unlucky.
By historicising the plot, the period piece takes the comforting romance of a contemporary rom-com and elevates it to fantasy. In a world of balls filled with dancing, empire waistlines, and the swirl of string quartets, where young ladies take a leisurely turn around the drawing-room and days are spent waiting in anguish to hear from one’s unspoken love, it’s easy to sink into this landscape of grand romantic gestures and stunning natural landscapes. Watching the Bennet sisters frolic around the English countryside, I can’t help but be pulled into their seductively simple, rural life the same way I’m drawn to the whole cottagecore thing—it’s all flowing dresses, carefree hair tendrils, and glimpses of the sun setting over rolling hills. When for the majority of this year, we’ve been confined to houses, apartments and 5km radiuses, these films offer a sense of boundlessness that feels rather removed from our noticeably more cramped, contemporary urban landscape—glimpses into capacious castles and verdant pastoral landscapes where fields indefinitely stretch onwards. This sense of space heightens the fantastical aspect of these period pieces, offering the viewer a way to vicariously experience a life that is not only emotionally, but physically different to the quotidian humdrum. Whether it’s Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, The Duchess, Atonement, or anything else from Keira Knightley’s filmography, there’s something undeniably powerful about the way these movies both look and feel.
Indeed, given the amount of money spent on their production, the aesthetic of a period piece is often deliberately disarming, smoothing out the more unsavoury historical facts of the era. Take Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. A pretty pastry of a film, Coppola’s anachronistic interpretation of the last French queen glosses over the more unpalatable elements of the period’s history. With ceaseless shots of the Queen’s sparkling jewels, intricate pastel dresses, extravagant parties filled with champagne, gambling and sex, and above all, the magnificence of Versailles itself, it’s easy to get swept up in the sugar-high of Coppola’s aesthetic. It’s even easier to forget that while all this wealth is frivolously plundered, hordes of peasants march onwards to Versailles, angry and desperate amidst crippling economic inequality. The aesthetic allows us to look at this film less critically than we might if it were set in a more recognisably modern setting. Consider the story of a modern-day dictator hosting grand parties while the rest of the country sinks further into poverty. It’s a slightly harder sell. But because there’s distance, it’s easier to romanticise events, to draw something sympathetic and alluring from circumstances that, when paralleled today, might sting too much to make for pleasurable viewing.
It’s important to note, though, that social criticisms still exist within these works—one only has to look to Austen’s novels to recognise the layers of satire and critique embedded in so many adaptations’ source material. But because these stories are set in such seemingly far away, foreign lands, it’s easier to forgo applying our contemporary moral tests to them. It’s why they make for such perfect doses of escapism: they allow you to enter a world that’s often beautiful, and fascinatingly different from our own, with problems that are emotionally engaging, yet not so much as to be actually painful. As we watch the Bennets contend with the fact that marriage must fundamentally be treated as an economic proposition, it’s easy to feel safely distanced from their predicament. Though women still face gender-based marginalisation and marriage and economics often remain deeply intertwined, the issues afflicting the Bennets are unrelatable enough for a large proportion of viewers; their problems neither incite direct identification nor conjure the various ways gender still relates to disparities and disadvantages in modern society. If, however, a period piece were to tackle something a little more pressing—let’s say climate change or the destructive forces of late capitalism—then these issues become a little too uncomfortably “real”. While we can still relate to the scenarios of falling in love, being betrayed, being frustrated at the expectations of those around us, or even feeling isolated within one’s community, period pieces still manage to preserve a distance between the past and the present, ensuring the issues which most urgently need our present-day attention remain out of frame. By perfecting the delicate balance between familiarity and distance, the period piece offers the perfect excuse to retreat into an aestheticised rendition of the past when the present world becomes a bit too much.
As for me, now that the year’s looking slightly up, I no longer have the desire to watch as many period pieces as I did say, three or four months ago. You can still bet, though, that when the next season of The Great is released, I’ll be in my bed, cosied up, ready to delve straight back into a world of palaces, court politics and the intoxicating drama of royal romance.