In the 1980s and early 1990s, a new cinematic genre surfaced in Britain and was rapidly dubbed "heritage films". The genre included titles such as Howards End, A Room with a View, Maurice, Another Country, The Remains of the Day, A Month in the Country, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Handful of Dust . Most of these films shared period settings, country-house locations, elegant costumes, good manners and literate dialogue stylishly delivered by the crème de la crème of the British acting profession. Outraged by the popularity of these tasteful tales of well-bred people undergoing personal crises in agreeable surroundings, unthinking critics fell on them savagely, denouncing them as conservative, regressive and unpardonably nostalgic, branding them yet another product of the Thatcherism that was blighting the soul of the nation. "Heritage" became a term of abuse, and the films, referred to collectively by the shorthand term "Merchant-Ivory" after the most prolific producers of such works, were sneeringly dismissed as "films for people who don't like movies".
These attacks were wholly wrong-headed on both counts. Far from being conservative and nostalgic, these films were often profoundly subversive. Many of them constituted a comprehensive critique of the ethic of repression and the stiff upper lip, the surrender of personal happiness to higher notions of duty and self-sacrifice, hitherto key elements of the national character and enshrined in such classic films as Brief Encounter .
Restraint is invariably depicted in these films as a recipe for personal unhappiness and something that should be rejected in favour of individual, usually sexual, fulfilment. As for heritage films being Thatcherite, the last thing Thatcherism, radical, anti-establishment and ferociously transformative, would have endorsed would have been celebrations of the Edwardian country-house life and culture.
Film/Literature/Heritage , edited by Ginette Vincendeau, consists of essays, reviews and interviews culled from Sight and Sound , the house journal of the British Film Institute. Three-quarters of the book focuses on the heritage film in the wider context of literary adaptation. In general, the critics reject any notion of fidelity to the literary source and prefer postmodern cinematic retellings. Foreign and feminist films are strongly favoured: but British films regularly come in for a kicking.
The very first item is Cairns Craig's influential but woefully imperceptive dismissal of the heritage films, "Rooms without a view" (1991), which established the terms within which the genre has regularly been criticised. Thereafter the air is thick with the sound of axes being ground as film after film is dismissed in similar terms. Wilde is an "impossibly dated... 'heritage' soap opera with a muckraking spin". The Madness of King George is "a handsome piece of heritage cinema, chock full of English performers and stately homes... and unequivocally committed to the status quo". Mrs Brown is "ideologically pernicious" because "it leaves the institution of monarchy unquestioned". The Remains of the Day is "a film anybody will be able to go and see with their mother. Whether or not that is a recommendation is a moot point". And so on and on in the same vein. As so often in Sight and Sound , smart-ass put-downs and personal political agendas take the place of true critical engagement with the films under review.
There are some honourable exceptions to the general knee-jerk rejections of heritage films. Claire Monk and Richard Dyer are among the few who recognise the genuine sexual subversiveness of many of the heritage films, the celebrations of homosexuality, bisexuality and feminism that many of them contain behind their genteel facades. Andy Medhurst, characteristically preferring Carry on Henry to Merchant-Ivory, praises the bold and eye-opening historical reinventions of Restoration and Ian McKellen's Richard III .
One of the best contributions comes from Martin Scorsese in an interview in which he discusses his American heritage movie, The Age of Innocence . Skilful questioning by Ian Christie elicits from Scorsese his bemusement at British critics' hostility to the genre and his own unqualified admiration for Merchant-Ivory. He prides himself on having captured the social nuances of Edith Wharton's novel and on "showing Americans a period of their history which most of them didn't know existed".
It was perhaps unwise of Vincendeau to include a section in the book on modern-day dystopias, for it reveals where the true allegiances of many Sight and Sound critics lie. In stark contrast to the sneering dismissal of much of heritage cinema, the discussions of films such as Trainspotting , Naked Lunch, Crash and American Psycho are laced with praise: "brilliant', "admirable", "intelligent" and so on. It is a telling comment on the contemporary critical sensibility that it can respond so enthusiastically to the violent, the sleazy, the profane and the perverse while being immune to the beauty, style, subtlety, elegance, wit and sheer humanity exhibited by so many of the heritage films. There is a need for a good book on the heritage cinema phenomenon, but this is not it.
Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history, Lancaster University.
Film/Literature/Heritage: A Sight and Sound Reader
Editor - Ginette Vincendeau
ISBN - 0 85170 842 0 and 841 2
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £48.00 and £13.99
Pages - 300