Fancy Dress in Celluloid
When I taught middle-aged corporate employees with the usual biases against b&w movies, documentaries, foreign films beset by subtitles, and (god help us!) silent movies, it was always a pleasure to hear one of them express surprise that they actually enjoyed an assigned "artsy" film. Such was the case with Restoration (1995), starring the remarkably versatile Robert Downey, Jr.
Hugh Grant & Robert Downey
For me, what this film has in common with the others in this blog entry are its areas of viewer enrichment and of universality. All the movies in this entry excel at recreating a world centuries old, with details of commerce, costume, and furnishings that dazzle anyone with wits enough to appreciate them.
Elaborately "Period" Yet Energetically Topical
Men in funny wigs and finely designed attire challenge the American male Super Bowl enthusiast on several levels, which impresses us even more when the actors thus arrayed are the likes of Robert Downey, Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, Keanu Reeves, etc., and the ladies in their own encumbering finery are played by Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, and a dewy Uma Thurman.The tacit truth of such expensive projects is that--if peopled by such unfamiliar sites, costumes, and historical pressures--they'd better entertain us with some more familiar attractions (Steve Reeves, anyone?) and maybe even some meaty plot ideas. Not only do the best costume pictures sate our interest in power struggles, betrayal and revenge, sexual conquests, and topical ethics questions, but they do so with much higher doses of witty dialogue than the average comic book hero blockbuster.
My first choice for this section of the blog essay was the Casanova (2005) starring Heath Ledger--not the ponderous Donald Sutherland (1976) nor the genial Bob Hope (1954)versions. I had ignored the film when it was first released, stupidly inferring that it was Ledger's attempt to counterbalance Brokeback Mountain (2005). When I saw the movie on TV long after Ledger's death, I bought myself a copy of it at once. When that copy got lost sometime later, I bought another. (Yes, Netflixers, I know Iknow.) The picture is that good on that many levels.
Particularly astonishing, as with the others in this category, is this film's recreation of eighteenth-century Venice. Every shot, as is true in many of the best in this genre, is as aesthetically rewarding as an oil painting of the age it represents. Farce is a difficult mode of comedy to sustain for very long, and yet this talented poker-faced cast is up to the challenge. And Ledger, it can't be repeated too often, delivers a tremendously rich performance.
Delightfully & Delicately Ribald
Which compelled me to include a disturbing companion piece that stars Johnny Depp. The Libertine (2004) opens with a monologue to the audience, wherein Depp's roue declares, "You will not like me," after which the movie succeeds in proving him right.
Like Silkwood (1983) and some other worthy movies, The Libertine demands a respectful space on my shelf, but it is not one that I crave to actually sit through repeatedly. Clearly based on a stage play, it's literate and ripe with powerful dramatic episodes. But to watch the main character crumble into physical ruin is too disturbingly well achieved. Here is Casanova's dark side, leering through cankers with the brave, depraved persistence that this narrative defines as Man.
Prologue: "I Do Not Want You To Like Me"
It's not a pretty picture, but a valiant one. And its perspective on the plight of anti-heroes emerges as a theme shared by all the costume dramas in this blog. Abetted by being presented in an earlier era, each of these pictures has little good to say about societal hypocrisy and individuals' ideals. Both are alleged to be governed by the libido, and no non-heroic attempt to improve one's social status goes unpunished. Again, heady condemnations of humankind--wrapped in witty epigrams airy as fleet as gossamer and lubricated by scenes of supreme finery and decadence.
It was the above clip of Glenn Close and John Malkovich that made me realize the importance of witty dialogue in period pictures. As with The Libertine, this movie is based on a stage play; therefore the written component is particularly strong. (For a counter argument, viz my blog essay on Zeffirelli's Taming of the Shrew.)
As with Casanova, Dangerous Liaisons is a "sex comedy of manners," replete with lascivious conquests and devious intrigues. However, like its central warriors Glenn and John, this outing hides a grin of steel behind its powdered wigs and bounteous petticoats. And, in this instance, the character most parallel to the hapless Libertine is of the female persuasion.
The main characters of all these costume dramas pit their own raw wits against the forces of nature, human nature, and societal mores. Their interactions with or advancements in social rank dazzle a movie audience's imagination, making their dismal downfalls all the more alarming. These are elegant films noirs, wherein the plucky protagonists haven't got a chance! The same holds true in one of the films examined in this blog entry's final section.
Earlier essays in this four-parter have covered costume dramas with and without CGI and also BBC series too wicked to be made today. The last segment traces the impact of b&w and color cinematography in two period drama motion pictures of special merit.