THE HERITAGE FILM AND THE UNITED STATES
NEW UNDERSTANDINGS OF
THE HERITAGE FILM
L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), the novel that inspired what may have been the first contemporary heritage film, offers the perfect epigram for the form: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." Significantly, many of the hallmarks of the heritage film are present in this early example: directed in 1970 by Joseph Losey (1909–1984), a transplanted American (many heritage films emanate from national "outsiders"), The Go-Between is a stately, handsome adaptation of a respected novel set in a pre-war English country house and involving the sexual maturation of its young protagonist. Moreover, many of the questions arising from attempts to define the heritage film are also present in this example. Is it a form that has served to bolster the British film industry? or Does it represent a kind of filmic colonization of British stories and screens by Britain's former possessions? Does the form manifest geographical limitations that mean that it might be better denominated the English heritage film?
Film scholars cannot even agree on whether heritage films constitute a genre, partly because such films share only loosely associated tropes or iconographical elements and partly because they so readily appear to collapse into neighboring genres, such as the costume film, the historical film, the war film, and the prestige literary adaptation. In practice, the heritage film ranges widely over source material (from E. M. Forster and Henry James to working-class autobiographies from World War II), era, and nation: there are French heritage films, including La Reine Margot (Queen Margot, Patrice Chéreau, 1994) and Manon des sources (Manon of the Spring, Claude Berri, 1986), and now German heritage films dealing with the Holocaust, such as Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, 1999). The locus classicus of the heritage film nonetheless remains the narrative of pre–World War I or interwar England; it is often an adaptation of an esteemed literary property and typically invokes what might be termed heritage landmarks, such as Oxbridge colleges and National Trust properties.
It is in part through their treatment of landscape that heritage films as a group begin to display what might be viewed as generic characteristics. John Hill suggests that the heritage film typically focuses on the relationships among a group of characters rather than on the destiny of a single character; and has a slow pace, a preference for dialogue over action, and an approach to mise-en-scène that exceeds motivations found in the narrative or that does not necessarily express characters' emotions (1999, p. 80). Places and objects are displayed rather than dramatized, leading to what Andrew Higson calls "heritage space"—the film serves as a jewel box for the arrangement and contemplation of heritage properties (Higson in Friedman, p. 117). This approach to technique often emphasizes mise-en-scène over other cinematic elements, such as editing, and is a large part of the pleasure in spectacle to be found in such films.
Critical response to this stylistic aspect has been divided, with conservative critics arguing that British film should explore and valorize a glorious past, and left-leaning critics expressing concern over the often limited heritage on display, particularly in terms of the exclusion of working-class experience. Working-class characters may function merely as observers or chorus members in dramas often consumed with the problems of those possessing or seeking an independent income. The Thatcher government's investment in the projection of heritage culture as a manifestation of a revived Britain (witnessed by the National Heritage Acts of 1980 and 1983) added to the ideologically suspect nature of heritage films in the eyes of some critics (Higson, pp. 51–54). Lutz Koepnick has argued that the heritage film produces "usable and consumable pasts … history as a site of comfort and orientation" (p. 51)—hence the occasional dismissal of heritage films as the "Laura Ashley school of filmmaking." A number of critics have noticed that the heritage film's desire for authenticity and its close attention to the look of objects create a kind of break between images and narrative, with objects constituting a conservative commentary on what might have originally been a work of social satire (such as the 1988 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust by Charles Sturridge [b. 1951]).
Heritage films' characteristic contest between the consequences of using period objects and the critical projects of their source texts may further intensify the critical uncertainty about whether such films genuinely or reliably constitute a genre. One way of addressing that uncertainty has been to consider what kinds of audiences consume these films, a question considerably complicated by the international flavor of the production and consumption of heritage films. While at first blush the project of the heritage film would appear to be to bring Britain's glorious past to the screen, viewers may be struck by British heritage films' exceptional reliance upon American audiences not only for their ultimate global box-office success but also for access to British audiences. The average Briton attends one film in a theater annually; most film consumption in Britain takes place via the television and VCR—Britons have one of the world's highest rates of VCR use. Consequently, any "British" cinema is necessarily mediated by television and probably influenced by the tastes of other Anglophone audiences. In a pattern that heritage films pioneered but that now transcends genre, theme, and film style, British films are often given only limited or no release at all domestically until an American run has established their marketability, at which point they are re-exported to their country of manufacture.
If British television pioneered the production of handsome adaptations of popular pre-war narratives, American public television trained American audiences to consume them. American series such as Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! showcased quality British television programming from the 1970s; film and television production reinforced each other (and established a pattern of crossover labor), with, for example, Sturridge's lush Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited appearing in the same year (1981) that Chariots of Fire took American movie theaters by storm. Less obvious is that success on the small screen should translate to success on the large screen. Nonetheless, the heritage film spoke to the institutional needs of both British and American filmmakers and distributors in the 1980s. The modest budgets by American standards made heritage films attractive to US distributors, who found that the films could be gratifyingly profitable in extended runs at a limited number of well-chosen theaters, such as the Paris in New York City, before going on to stepped releases elsewhere in the nation. In the British context, heritage films operated as a heaven-sent solution to the financing problems created by the introduction of the FilmsBillin1984–1985, which removed earlier government supports to the film industry (Quart in Friedman, p. 23). Because of its connection to a small but reliable niche audience in the United States and in Britain, the heritage film could expect to recuperate its costs outside the UK, which most British films must hope to do to become profitable.
The heritage film in fact operated internationally as a kind of highly accessible art film. It was frequently distributed through small art cinemas, promising a kind of reliable upper-middlebrow visual pleasure without necessarily demanding the kinds of interpretive effort typical of films such as L'Année dernier 'a Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961). Rapturous acclaim via the Oscars®, such as was received by Chariots of Fire (four Academy Awards®, seven nominations) and for James Ivory's A Room with a View (1985) (three Academy Awards®, seven nominations), coupled with good box office, did not merely add to the films' prestige: on some level, American involvement and reception helped constitute the constellation of characteristics that typified the heritage film. For example, James Ivory (b. 1928), an American director—his collaborators, producer Ismail Merchant (1936–2005) and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (b. 1927), are respectively Pakistani and German by birth—is responsible for seven of the iconic heritage films of the 1980s and early 1990s.
So is the heritage film merely light entertainment for export—a kind of film tourism that reflects American expectations about a Britain ossified in a long Edwardian summer? Does it undermine any hope of representing Britain in all its complexity and change? Claire Monk argues that critics who dismiss the heritage film as ideologically suspect, boringly predictable, or merely a creature of American taste approach it too reductively. Part of the problem is indeed the capaciousness of the term "heritage film," coupled with the assumption that it describes a stable, unchanging genre (2002, p. 7). Monk has attempted to periodize heritage films, separating those of the 1980s and early 1990s from later entrants, which she characterizes as "post-heritage" by virtue of their self-conscious foregrounding of strategies designed to subvert the supposed conservatism of the heritage film or to undercut the primacy of the potentially too-dominant mise-en-scène (Monk in Vincendeau, p. 7). She argues that critics too readily assume that heritage films operate in ways entirely analogous to, say, National Trust landmarks—that a heritage film has a unitary, conservative meaning derived exclusively from its setting. As Monk observes, this approach hardly allows for the complexity of the interactions among a film's characterization, narrative, and dialogue, all of which may under-cut the potential conservatism of reviving the past by filming its surviving material manifestations (2002, p. 188). Monk thus sees important distinctions among heritage films—for example, A Room with a View is considerably less conservative than Chariots of Fire, because the former permits its female protagonist to come to an important understanding about her agency and the nature of her sexual desires while the latter offers a less complex story line concerned with the creation and training of the British Olympic team in 1924.
Critics such as Monk and Richard Dyer see an exploration of sexuality, including homosexuality, as key to many heritage films. At the very least, it is fair to say that one of the major plot engines of the heritage film is the Bildungsroman, the coming to maturity of the young protagonist, typically dramatized at a moment of difficult self-discovery, as in Maurice (Ivory, 1987), The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley, 1997), or Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998), all of whose protagonists possess desires that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with social expectations. Stories of homosexual desire and illicit female pursuit of agency or control fit very naturally into the framework of the bildungsroman.
Characteristically, even the earliest cycle of heritage films offers the spectacle of desire often frustrated but sometimes achieved, causing critics to debate the question of the heritage film's progressivism or lack thereof. Are the films progressive because they offer the spectacle of gay men or women longing for things they ought not to have (but sometimes get)? Are they conservative because they appear to admire the past in which these things were often denied to these people?
James Ivory, b. Berkeley, California, 7 June 1928
Ismail Merchant, b. Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman, Bombay,
India, 25 December 1936, d. London, England, 25 May 2005
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, b. Cologne, Germany, 7 May 1927
As a production team, Merchant-Ivory was responsible for more than thirty films over 42 years, making the partnership of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and novelist/screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala among the most productive and durable of independent filmmakers. While the team remained active through 2005, Merchant also increasingly directed his own projects, including three features since Cotton Mary (1999).
The team's first feature, The Householder (1963), was the first to involve Jhabvala's services as screenwriter; showing the influence of Indian director Satyajit Ray, it led to further projects exploring Indian life and celebrating the sensibility and richness of its cinema. Shakespeare Wallah (1965) narrates the fortunes of a troupe of traveling players, both English and Indian, in the post-Independence, movie-mad 1960s, while Bombay Talkie (1970) analyzes the disastrous association between an English novelist played by Jennifer Kendal and an Indian film star played by her real-life husband, Shashi Kapoor. This sequence of films set in India showcased a number of persistent production strategies, namely the foregrounding of ensemble playing, an ability to enlist the help of more established filmmakers (such as Ray, who wrote the music for Shakespeare Wallah), a feel for identifying up-and-coming talent (when he worked with Merchant-Ivory, Kapoor had not yet become a major star), and an anthropological sense of place and social fabric reflecting not only the team's interests but also Ivory's beginnings in documentary.
Possibly as a result of their own disparate national and social backgrounds, Merchant-Ivory consistently pursue the question of what a character experiences when he or she attempts to penetrate a closed social milieu, ranging from the desire to master the mores of a foreign culture to the aspiration to control the hierarchies of theater stage or film screen. The indispensable closed social milieu is the sexual couple or close friendship that becomes a sexual triangle with the arrival of an outsider, permitting the intense exploration of patterns of domination within friendship and amorous coupling. Merchant-Ivory films often concern the failure to read social codes, be they those of privileged pre-war Anglophones (Heat and Dust, 1983; Howards End, 1992; The Remains of the Day, 1993; Savages, 1972), or of modern New York City (Jane Austen in Manhattan, 1980).Refreshingly, Merchant-Ivory films can imagine that defying social codes does not invariably result in happiness; sometimes their films examine the costs of desire for both the desiring character and society at large.
Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970), Roseland (1977), Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), Heat and Dust (1983), A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), The Golden Bowl (2000), Le Divorce (2003)
Long, Robert Emmet. The Films of Merchant Ivory. (Revised). New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997 .
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: Twenty-One Years of Merchant Ivory Films. London and New York: British Film Institute and Museum of Modern Art, 1983.
Recent heritage films are striking for the large number that foreground activities such as painting (as in Carrington [Christopher Hampton, 1995]) or theater (for instance, Topsy-Turvy [Mike Leigh, 1999] and Finding Neverland [Marc Forster, 2004]) in order to dramatize creative work or activities that might be described as play. In these examples, the heritage film offers the best possible motivations for the minute inspection of mise-en-scène: either it proves to be the very fabric of the narrative, as when Dora Carrington gradually paints every square inch of her cottage in a kind of autobiography of her attachment to Lytton Strachey, or it
presents the details of late nineteenth-century theatrical production as part of the exploration of grown men (W. S. Gilbert and J. M. Barrie) sojourning in extended, profitable fantasy. The heritage film here signals one of its major attractions—that the denial of desire can be perversely sexy, even progressive, particularly when coupled with the satisfactions of carefully wrought spectacle and performance. In short, one of the great appeals of the heritage film is that it bridges the fabled divide in English cinema between fantasy and realism.
Friedman, Lester, ed. Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993; Revised ed., London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
Higson, Andrew. English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama Since 1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Hill, John. British Cinema in the 1980s: Issues and Themes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
Koepnick, Lutz. "Reframing the Past: Heritage Cinema and Holocaust in the 1990s." New German Critique 87 (2002): 47–82.
Monk, Claire, and Amy Sargeant, eds. British Historical Cinema: The History, Heritage and Costume Film. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Vincendeau, Ginette, ed. Film/Literature/Heritage: A Sight and Sound Reader. London: British Film Institute, 2001.