Period Dramas: The Modern Approach

The question one finds themselves asking regarding Autumn De Wilde’s new film version of Emma is; do we really need another live action version of Jane Austen’s novel?

Like so much of Austen’s works, the novel is wonderful and has led to many great on-screen versions, but given the knack for Hollywood and film studios to resort to remakes and reboots and new versions of anything that seems like a safe bet, one might be inclined to ask why we’re getting a new live action version of a novel that has been filmed so many times before.

And yet…

Period dramas, especially those based on previously adapted novels, and famous works of literature at that, have been given new adaptations that work wonders. They have managed to retain the majesty of the novels and what has made them not only re-readable for multiple generations and worthy of study in our classrooms, but also have been given a modern spark that makes them wonderful viewing experiences in the present day.

It’s not as uncommon as you’d think for a period drama to retain its period setting and manage to bring a modern attitude to it; Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice had the period dressing, opulent mansions and feminist spirit grafted to protagonist Elizabeth Bennet that made it a wonderful viewing experience, and was also met with a somewhat indifferent reaction when the film was announced given that it was coming only ten years after what was an iconic production from the BBC that made stars of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, the latter stealing the hearts of many when he took that swim in that lake.

Likewise, Autumn De Wilde’s Emma has been released into cinemas eleven years after a BBC production, written by Sandy Wench, and given that there are so many filmed versions, one might ask themselves why we need another?

Then again one could ask themselves why make another Little Women or David Copperfield?

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women.

The funny thing with Emma was that she went through a massive moment in 1995 and 1996 when no less than three versions of her story made it to the screen; 1996 saw the cinematic release of Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, while the same year saw ITV trying to catch that Jane Austen-lightning in the bottle a second time with Kate Beckinsale in the lead along with a teleplay by the BBC Pride and Prejudice’s Andrew Davies, the go-to writer for many British period dramas who gained a reputation for ‘sexing’ up the texts for a modern television audience, hence the now iconic image of Colin Firth in wet breaches, not to mention Alex Kingston’s star making turn in his take on Moll Flanders.

Only the year beforw did the text gain a modern make over and was turned into an iconic Hollywood teen movie through Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, that transplanted the story and the characters to Beverly Hills to brilliant and iconically comedic effect, and was itself later turned into a television series.

This past year has seen new versions of Little Women, David Copperfield and now Emma, and while one might want to roll their eyes and complain about the lack of originality in new ideas and the constant roll-out of remakes and such, what has been invigorating these new interpretations from De Wilde, Gerwig and Iannucci has been their modern approaches to adapting them.

Greta Gerwig’s second film, and her follow up to the superlative Lady Bird, not only brought a modern approach to character development in Little Women that never for one moment feels on the nose (Jo’s speech about how as a women her choices are limited could have fallen apart but works gorgeously not just in the context of being a modern day feminine film but also in the context of a female driven period drama), but it also in some cases recontextualises some of the characters in a way that made them feel more developed than they have done in other versions.

Meg March, as played by Florence Pugh, has always been a bone of contention for many fans of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, and yet Gerwig single candidly rehabilitates the character, making her more developed and real, and thanks to Pugh’s portrayal she is also more likeable in a manner than previous versions have done before.

Little Women did incredibly well in a Christmas season that saw it having to compete at the box office against the might of Star Wars. That it’s still playing in many multiplexes at the time of writing while Star Wars has all but disappeared from the multiplex schedules says a lot.

Dev Patel, incredibly charming and lovable, as David Copperfield.

A few weeks after the release of Little Women we were given a new version of David Copperfield, this time by The Thick of It and Veep creator Armando Iannucci who has become a master satirist of modern-day politics, not to mention being famous for his creative use of swearing.

His television shows and subsequent films have explored modern day politics, and older with The Death of Stalin, to a startling and hilarious effect, and when it was announced that he was directing a new version of David Copperfield, one might have been expecting some sort of satirical approach similar to the manner in which he explored British, American and Soviet politics.

Instead, what we got was, on a narrative level at least, a pretty straight forward adaptation of one of Charles Dickens’ most famous novels. Once again, the history of cinema and British television is littered with so many adaptations that they’re almost too numerous to list. What made Iannucci’s film so different and wonderful, however, was the casting. Taking a colour-blind approach, The Personal History of David Copperfield is that rare thing; a classy, gorgeously mounted period drama filled with a diverse cast, including its lead. Usually played by any number of young white male actors, here David was played by Dev Patel and wonderfully so, taking the audience somewhat by the hand in the opening moments, almost literally, and walking us through a human life dotted by other persons of colour.

The film’s cast is a mixture of male and female actors played by differing races and skin colours and is a wonderful approach that the film takes seriously and yet subtly. The film never stops to say that any of the characters aren’t white, and in Patel we have a charming lead character for the ages.

In fact, The Personal History of David Copperfield would make a wonderful double bill with Little Women in that both stories end up with their lead protagonists turning their life story into works of literature and both films almost comment on the endings of their own stories with little fourth wall breaking touches that are humorous and wonderful, culminating with final scenes involving their casts together in harmony that cannot help but make you smile.

As for David Copperfield’s casting, it’s an approach that might make one look at future period dramas with a different eye. It’s the one thing that is very noticeable in Emma. It is a film filled with white people and yet, like Gerwig’s Little Women, it’s the feminist approach to it that works wonders in a modern context. There is always the danger that Emma Woodhouse can be a touch too unlikable and yet there is something classily anti-heroic about her that Autumn De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton runs with entertainingly.

As an adaptation, it doesn’t rock the boat too much it would seem; it neither reconfigured the narrative in a non-linear way like Gerwig’s approach to Little Women, nor does it aim for the colour-blind casting of Iannucci and David Copperfield, but it’s a mainstream film being given a wide release that has been directed by a woman, with a screenplay by a female writer, based on a work from a female novelist. The script zings, the style of the filmmaking is visually stunning with at least one shot in every scene that looks as if it could be framed in a painting, and in Anya Taylor-Joy we’ve been given one of the best Emma’s on screen.

Even other smaller touches feel feminine. The camera clearly ogles Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) in what the BBFC describes as ‘brief natural nudity’, and while Emma’s relationship with Knightley is a key component of the story, it’s her friendship with Harriet (Mia Goth) that feels at times like the most important emotional undercurrent for the narrative, and it’s their reconciliation at the end that feels just as important as any declaration of love to male suitors, although there is no denying the chemistry between Joy and Flynn.

As a trio, the three films have managed to appeal to a cross generation of audiences without stepping over the other. Visiting the cinema to watch these three films has seen large audiences, with all three seemingly appealing to young and old alike. It’s what makes them feel simultaneously new and yet, in the best possible way, old fashioned and probably ensures that they are stories that will stay with future generations for a long time to come yet.

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