Encountering the World of Period Dramas

By Lilly Ball

In the age of a Marvel-dominated cinema, a genre more popularly known for its costuming than characters has quietly been on the rise. Period dramas, believe it or not, are not limited to BBC specials and Austen adaptations. They possess a unique magic and can be as fulfilling as any film filled to the brim with superheroes, albeit with less explosions.  Their fixation on a certain epoch of time allows audiences to be wholly consumed, as their plots are often so far removed from the plagues of current society, yet still remain relatable in their elements of love and struggle.

In the winter of 2006, edgy director Sofia Coppola brought a newfound trendiness to the genre with her rebellious take on the french monarchy, “Marie Antoinette.” Starring Kirsten Dunst as the iconic dauphine, the film featured a loud, pop-filled soundtrack, dreamy costumes, and wild, opium-induced party scenes. Dunst meandered around her opulent palace in sky-high wigs, achieving true rococo perfection. The film defied all stereotypes assigned to period dramas, as it was the furthest thing from stuffy or boring. A long twelve years later, “Marie Antoinette” still serves as a true testament to the versatility of the genre, in all of its aesthetically-pleasing glory.

A year prior, Keira Knightley embodied the beloved Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright’s most gorgeous film to date, “Pride & Prejudice,” an adaptation of the famed Jane Austen novel. Though a much less outrageous film than “Marie Antoinette,” “Pride & Prejudice” is visual perfection, featuring a soundtrack by Dario Marianelli that could also stand on its own. Wright, known for the whimsical aura that he brings to all his films, made “Pride & Prejudice” his masterpiece. Never could any scene rival the beauty and refined sexual tension of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s first dance, or compare to the  panning shots of lush English countryside that swallow every character within the frame. Chick flick or not, the film is everything a period drama enthusiast could hope for.

Period dramas have often found their way into the “Best Picture” category of the Academy Awards, with a win for “The Artist” in 2012, as well as “12 Years a Slave” in 2014. The genre has once again made its way to the top, this time with “Phantom Thread” as a strong contender for the upcoming ceremony.

As Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film before retirement, and second collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread” arrived in theaters with very high expectations. Unsurprisingly, the film is luxurious and all-consuming; surprisingly, it is as tense as it is beautiful. Anderson added a rather unsettling quality not often found in period dramas to his film about a lush romance between distinguished dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis,) and his young muse and lover, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps.)

“Phantom Thread” is almost overwhelming, and for a multitude of reasons. Day-Lewis delivers a performance worthy of a swan song for his long and successful career, as the utterly unreasonable genius Reynolds. He is remarkably irritating and controlling, yet by the end of the film, I was in love. Krieps, who was unknown to American audiences prior to this film, is amazing as well. Alma blooms as the plot moves  on, becoming the star by the end of the two hour long film, despite the very dark undercurrents of her character.

Each dress created by Reynolds on-screen is the epitome of 1950’s glamour, and almost rivals the actors in screen time, making this film a victory for costume design. Part of Reynolds’ charm is his ability to transform women that he deems homely into breathtaking art pieces, which is what seduces Alma, and many women before her. The film captures the frenzy of genius and creation and its aftermath, highlighted by the phenomenal score created by Radiohead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood.

Though “Phantom Thread” is up against many worthy contenders, the film is beautifully crafted and is a new pinnacle for the entire period drama genre.