Earlier today an industry pally asked if I’d be weighing in on Jodie Turner Smith playing Anne Boleyn. I shrugged and muttered to myself, “What’s the point?” Then a producer chum wrote about this and urged “just ignore it…it probably won’t work anyway.”
This may come as a shock to some, but there used to be a kind of standardized approach when it came to making historical films. The idea (and I know it sounds eccentric by today’s standards) was that depictions of this or that era would strive not just for historical accuracy in the usual ways but (are you sitting down?) to some extent culturally, atmospherically and psychologically exotic. That is to say different from our own. And when I say “different,” I mean insufficiently evolved.
There’s no avoiding what might be called the projection syndrome, or depicting historical realms so they resonãte with contemporary audiences. No historical film has ever been purely submissive to recorded history. Hollywood’s been allowing present-tense attitudes to seep into historical flicks for over a century now. But once upon a time certain aspiring filmmakers used to at least try to convince you that characters in their films probably looked and talked like their real-life counterparts did back in the day.
I’m not talking about Michael Curtiz‘s Robin Hood or Richard Thorpe‘s phoney-baloney Ivanhoe, of course, or Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Sign of the Cross or Samson and Delilah or Rudolph Mate‘s The Black Shield of Falworth or Dick Powell‘s The Conqueror, all of which were applications of broadly winking kitsch.
But some films have at least appeared to try for seemingly realistic presentations of this or that historical time period. Stanley Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon (’75), for one. Or Fred Zinneman‘s A Man For All Seasons. Or Philip Borsos‘ The Grey Fox (’82).
Recent exceptions like The Favourite aside, the Kubrick approach has pretty much been thrown out the window. Multicultural, color-blind, Hamilton-styled casting has been embedded for the last five or six years now, and for the most part there’s just no interest in doing anything other than to re-imagine history according to current standards and aspirations.
The main idea is to not just recreate history but progressively correct it, and thereby make things safe for future generations.
Plus the style of acting (i.e., behaving) and speaking in whatever role and by whichever actor is all 21st Century these days. Very few, it seems, will even attempt to sound “period”, and those that do don’t have the chops to make it work. I’m happy to say Ethan Hawke is not one of them. The other night I finally caught episode #1 of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, and his John Brown is worth the price.
I knew that Michael Mann‘s Last of the Mohicans had been given a certain cultural spin, but the historical authority was brilliant and Daniel Day Lewis Hawkeye was magnificent. Did the actual Marcus Brutus look and sound at all like James Mason in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Julius Caesar? Highly doubtful, but I bought the performance for the skill and discipline that Mason deployed. Did Henry II sound like Peter O’Toole‘s versions in Becket and The Lion in Winter?
Perhaps Probably not, but there was no trouble believing that O’Toole had immersed himself in Jean Anouilh and 12th Century England and obtained a certain command of the realm.
That kind of RADA + force-of-personality command is hard to come by these days. All I know is that I’m feeling a kind of instinctual, across-the-board dismissal of any historical film directed, written by and/or starring Millennials or Zoomers. Because I know going in that I won’t believe it.
I found Josie Rourke‘s Mary Queen of Scots, another progressive color-blinder and Saoirse Ronan‘s performance aside, especially irksome for its lack of authenticity. Ben Wheatley‘s Rebecca was worse. Kristin Scott Thomas‘s Mrs. Danvers aside, I didn’t believe a single line or moment in that film — not a one. (Wheatley’s film did, however, inspire me to rewatch the 1940 Hitchcock original, and except for the longish middle section it still plays like great music.)
All this aside, it still hurts to think that I managed to not see Denzel Washington‘s Julius Caesar at the Belasco in April ’05. I know it didn’t get the greatest reviews, but I wanted to see it so badly. Everyone did. And there doesn’t seem to be a DVD capturing…right?