Analysis Of Generic Components Between The Older Heritage And Post Heritage Cinema
To discuss British heritage in terms of its generic components I will differentiate the films by period. The concept of heritage is not a definitive genre, meaning a diverse range of films are considered to be within the category. Several critics address this issue of the “unchanging genre” (2002, p. 7); Monk’s solution to this is separating the films made from the 1980’s and 90’s to the most recent labelling them as “post heritage”. Regardless of period, the heritage film associates with neighbouring genres, commonly associated with the costume and historical genre.
For example the prestige literary adaptation of Howards End (James Ivory, 1992) explores several components of heritage, varying from mise en scene to “everything that is settled and honourable about england” (john pym). The costume drama is later formed into a modern style that an audience can relate to rather than idolise. Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) displays quintessentially british themes and a truthfulness to upper-class attitudes and awkwardness. In more modern heritage film, the biopic spectacle has come to light to highlight English events of historical importance and heroes, in this instance a war hero in Morten Tyldum’s Imitation Game (2014). Biopics within itself vary in their own categories, however there distinctive policies in the historical sense that operate as a heritage film. These films mentioned share polarities and their own distinct narratives, although the aesthetics and codes of conventions bring them under one conservative division.
Undoubtedly when we think of Heritage the costume drama comes to mind. Period films (mainly literary adaptation) surged in the late 80s due to Merchant Ivory films developing ‘pictorial signifiers of everything that the heritage industry represented’(p147), one of these films being Howards End. The film focuses on the picturesque life of the upper class in Edwardian England. It becomes very clear that the film is an engagement with setting rather than narrative, like most of Ivory’s films. The setting in Heritage film is arguably the most important factor, as experiencing the nostalgic representation of a past time is what grants its label.
Howards End plays into this nostalgic romanticism of the old country to reflect the conservative values and power play. The “visually timeless” (p149) setting noted by Higson solidifies the idea of a stable british identity and justly glorifies what the period stood for. The duration of the film uses magnificent hillsides or old english mansions that compliment the characters upper class and old fashioned values. The importance of this is accentuated through camera work. Rather than the traditional hollywood editing style format, the camera follows the mise en scene rather than the action. Long takes, wide shots allow the audience to pay more attention to the periods setting.
Noted by Higson, the mise en scene relentlessly pushes forward the narrative in order to give more space to dramatise what’s in the background. He coined the term ‘Heritage Space’ to emphasise the importance of decoding the dramatised objects and settings in order to truly grasp the period aesthetic. Furthermore, the narrative commonly incorporates scenes that include an event or conversation to give an opportunity to see the settings. For example, in Howards End they commonly have long engagements at dinner, this way the viewer can focus on the characters house and determine their class. This is important when considering the hierarchy between the schlegels and the Bast’s household.
This trait is also used in Four Weddings and a Funeral, particularly between the conversations of Charles and Carrie, the long takes of conversations allows us to see the social stature of the weddings. Newell uses rural imagery of a selective part of britain that suggests wealth, similar to the southern aesthetic used in Ivory’s films. In comparison, the biopic genre focuses less on the costume and more on the narrative like the traditional hollywood style. Likewise the Imitation Game focuses predominantly on the complexity of Alan Turing’s life, yet still relies on setting and costume to reflect the era.
As important as the setting is, it would be nothing without costume. As Heritage films rely so heavily on mise en scene, it can be argued that costume is more made for authentic accuracy of the era rather than the development of a character. Mainstream films use costume design to help establish a character’s mood or personality, Stella Bruzzi argues this is not the case for the heritage sector. Her argument focuses on Howards End, and the variety of clothing used to establish what the opulent characters of the period would traditionally wear. “Looking through clothes, as the major design effort is to signal the accuracy of the costumes and to submit them to the greater framework of historical and literary authenticity.
Costume films that, conversely, choose to look at clothes create an alternative discourse, and one that usually countered or complicate the ostensible strategy of the overriding narrative”. I believe that costume does play a part in establishing the character, specifically in the Wilcox wedding, we can visually see the wealth and status differences between them and the Basts. This argument would apply closer to post heritage, for example the clothes detected in the Imitation Game do not add to Alan Turing’s character or personality, yet without it we wouldn’t grasp the war time aesthetic. Although the argument applies to later heritage films, Bruzzi continues to claim the most interesting costume dramas become erotic, however in the sense of British heritage this is untrue. Howard’s End uses distinctive elite fashion of the Edwardian period without relying on female erotica to drive the narrative.
The narrative of a british heritage film is an integral part to its generic components. The plethora of genres that are considered heritage will use this story line in one way or another. John Hill (1999,p80) states that the heritage film focuses on a group of people, either family or friends that experience a crisis in their relationships. This is a classic storyline of the costume drama which frequently deals with issues of social codes in a family setting. For example, in Four Weddings a central focus is Charles and his failing relationships, in which his friends pressure him to find a wife in order to fulfil his middle class life.
The films dictate themselves on the failure of maintaining tradition; something that could damage the reputation of others. The costume drama is typically labelled as conservative when considering the choice of narrative, it tends to explore the period through mise en scene and glorifying the past rather than a liberal expression of heritage. This would include a lack of the working class or struggling characters that could potentially harm the experience of English nobility. Film critic Richard Dyer argues that british cinema “effectively deals with emotional repression, the representation of which in itself can be a very moving experience,” in this instance heritage creates an emotional experience through its conservative display of scenery and situation. Howard’s End is difficult to determine whether it leans towards a conserative or liberal narrative. Higson argued the film has obvious liberal motifs, the forbidden love affair between Helen Schelegel and Leonard Bast utterly breaks the social standards. This unconventional plot point alters the audience’s perception of the Schlegels; her actions do not align with the values of the upper class.
This offers a real perspective into the history of class and wealth, unlike the more restrictive conservative films of the late 80’s. Although Howards End uses this interesting libreral device, most commonly in the costume drama it is avoided. Undoubtedly Four Weddings and A funeral has a clear liberal expression throughout its narrative, the comedic element is almost a satire to the old traditions of marriage. Furthermore, the narrative is always extremely slow paced to allow the mise en scene to breathe as discussed before. This also gives opportunity to exploit the english aristocratic lifestyle in all its glory, as the narratives uses ‘usable and consumable pasts … history as a site of comfort and orientation’ (p. 51). Stories that reflect english culture in a positive light, or in fact producing films that are set in the time of the nation are the most classic stories told in heritage to create a sense of national identity.
The ‘coming of a nation’ heritage films are usually based on pre world war, rarely do they talk about discourse of the wealthy upper class. This focuses on real facts of english achievements, the Imitation Game being an obvious example of this. Heritage films of the war period demonstrate a realistic view of the local working class or an industrial setting. It explores the liberal view that film critics ached for in the costume drama. This biopic imitates the successes and failures of Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code and the authorities discovery of his homosexuality. The biopic structure tends to focus on an individual of importance that has a disability or an inevitable hamartia. The secrecy of his homosexuality becomes a moment of crisis in the film and a sense of empathy is evoked. The film displays three stages of the protagonists life to give context to his insensitive narcissism, as well as the tragic love story between himself and Christopher. The reality of his emotional trauma creates a relatable heritage film which in fact brings in a larger sum at the box office compared to the eliteness of the costume drama.
Casting in heritage cinema is a pivotal part in embodying british culture. Specific actors have emerged from the heritage scene and are synonymous with selling the english setting. For example Helen Bonham Carter (playing Helen Schlegel in Howards End) is known for her repertoire of period films. Her gothic appearance aligns with the character Helen, which gives a better sense of english heritage. Furthermore, the gender roles are a large part of the heritage scene. British Heritage films heavily relies on the female audience, specifically costume dramas. Stereotypically this is why the costume drama commonly has a love interest or personal story that would interest the main demographic. Strong willed female characters are a main plot point, regardless of the period.
The story provides space for an independent woman and how they conform throughout the film. Maragret Schlegel starts as a strong, confident woman yet declines into a devoted housewife. Most commonly another female archetype falls from grace in their mental state. Helen “progressively becomes less decorous” and rebels against aristocratic value to become a single parent (this being very shameful out of wedlock). The woman’s hamartia or loss of heritage is a very driven plot line, although most times it ends well. Another example of this being the highly intelligent Joan Clarke who feels pressured by her parents to conform to normal social standards of marriage, yet once overcomes her struggles with Alan Turing, she achieves this. Typically the sense of a female community is necessary to connect to the period drama, as most are set in a time of female emancipation.
In conclusion, the generic components between the older heritage films and post heritage are hard to decipher, as the original characteristics have been so modernised and adapted. Although it’s constantly reconfiguring its generic borders’ (Vidal 2012: 4), the few elements discussed are a necessity to the british heritage film. The mise en scene creates the british heritage aesthetic; its what drives the narrative forwards. Settings and costume are what homes in on the traditional notions of englishness.
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