Period Dramas Find New Life With Independent Cinema

Archita Kashyap - 76 weeks ago

Following up on the runaway superhit and awards season darling, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a slate of period dramas from independent film producers make the genre compelling and relevant to present times.

Elizabeth McGovern has become a household name with Downton Abbey. As Cora Crowley, a kind, generous American married to a nobleman in Britain, her role in the cult period drama Downtown Abbey is simple and straightforward. Keen on exploring a deeper, more complex experience of women in the late nineteenth century, McGovern picked up the novel by Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone, to produce her first independent film. Speaking with media while promoting the film, she said, “We wanted to make this film because there aren’t too many films (for people like us). We don’t like cartoons; we are grown-ups. We like to watch stories about women like us, going through life’s different experiences, and you would find it difficult to find such films today.” 

Her surmise of the lack of dramas, or romances in studio-backed films currently is accurate. McGovern worked with none less than Julian Fellowes on this book adaptation to film. Fellowes humanized the British upper crust and its stiff upper lip on cinema with his classic, Gosford Park. A director and actor himself, he finally broke through to the big league on television with Downton Abbey, whereas McGovern has stated, he would write and the actors would do as he wrote. For The Chaperone, they set out to capture a journey of two women who start off with proprieties and routines of provincial life while moving to New York City in the Forties. Laura Moriarty’s book about the early days of Louise Brooks, the original flapper and sex symbol from Hollywood was a huge success in literary circles. In the film, focus also shifts on Norma’s character, which is on a path to her own self-discovery, finding truths about her life. Tackling the changing role for women in society, The Chaperone is a classic period drama. Only, it is told with a postmodern and resonant tone, so that it sits right with audiences. Director Michael Engler, a veteran of TV, directs it with sass and flair suitable to prime time dramas.  The film is the first cinema distribution effort by Masterpiece, from PBS Distribution. A network that holds chronicles and programs capturing history, politics, culture and cinema as paramount, that it chooses to distribute this period indie speaks of a larger market that has opened up for such films. 

The Chaperone is not the only one in this space. In 2018, The Favourite, with its golden run at awards and the Oscars, broke through norm and perception of a British royal drama and period films. Dialogues were base, conversations direct to the point of being street like and its very premise- a lesbian love and lust, competitive story- set it apart from staid propriety so linked to period pieces typically backed by big Hollywood money. Riding on golden performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite featured signature oddities and ambiguity that director Yargos Lanthimos is recognized for. It also made tons of money, and worked like a charm for its impropriety. 

In 2018, The Favourite ended up overshadowing another period film, a comedy that established Armando Iannucci’s satire writing in a league of its own. Carrying forward sarcasm and straight faced satire from In the Loop and Veep, Iannucci rips through the follow through of The Death of Stalin in a Communist dictatorship bereft of leadership. Steve Buscemi delivers an immaculate Nikita Krushchev, scheming and timely. When Russia pulled the film off theatres as ‘despicable’, it gave this critically acclaimed indie a fillip in business across Europe. Its independent production bet on an unusual comedy that worked well with audiences internationally. 

Exploring a period piece without trite patriotism and nationalistic ardor is Mike Leigh’s Peterloo. The film found interest at film festivals worldwide including Toronto earlier this year. Leigh is a vehemently independent filmmaker, one who lives to surprise with his honest, unembellished stories. Peterloo focuses on a bloody massacre that reflected the cruelty of a democratic British government against its own poverty stricken masses. Speaking to the media in Germany, Leigh feels his film will resonate worldwide for its currency. “All around us today, if you look at the world, democratic governments have reneged on their role and duties. Be it in Africa or the Middle East, governments didn’t do what their people voted them for. Which is why we have turmoil and conflicts. Peterloo’s story is about such a failure from the British government of 1817,” Leigh explains.

Leigh continues to disagree with studios and similar set ups, even as his Peterloo is produced by Amazon Studios. With long speeches, monologues about governance and people’s rights, this film would have not met typical commercial paradigms. Yet with Amazon Studios and its widely diversified distribution network which first exhibits films in selected theatres and then expands its reach, Peterloo has its strongest chance of getting it’s due with audiences. 

Typically, a period film is expensive to make and laborious to mount. It requires huge crews, suitable locations and good actors, those that can hold on their own. Period films have come about as independent when like-minded producers have collaborated across different territories and countries. For instance, The Favorite had co-producers from the USA, Britain and Canada.  Six are credited as producers in The Chaperone, including McGovern. Over time, as audiences grow for such films- ones that tackle interesting moments in the past irreverently and with a believable approach- more period indie films will be made. Human dramas always make for great movie viewing, and indie films stay committed to bringing more such films onscreen.


The Chaperone / The Favourite/ The Death of Stalin / Peterloo / Elizabeth McGovern / Yorgos Lanthimos / Armando Iannucci / Mike Leigh

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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