(Pictured below: Alan Rickman. Have I got your attention? I thought so.)
Over the past several months- and particularly this last week or so- I’ve been going through my Netflix queue, watching every costume drama/period piece I’ve put off for the past ten to twelve years: Wives and Daughters (1999), The Way We Live Now (2001) (or, as I like to call it, Cillian Murphy Is Sad) (2001), The Forsyte Saga (2002 – 2003), North & South (2004) and so on.
This isn’t that unusual, since costume dramas have been a part of my life from a young age. I watched Shakespeare adaptations, for one thing, and I knew what Masterpiece Theater was. When I was twelve my family got the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice (1995) on VHS. Since then I’ve probably sat through every Jane Austen adaptation ever, which is pretty impressive since I can’t read Austen to save my life.
No, really. The only way I was able to get through Sense and Sensibility was by listening to an abridged audiobook read by Kate Winslet (for the record: Winslet does kickass impressions of her co-stars).
I have told people that I have only two guilty pleasures in this world: costume dramas and Courtney Love. However, I think costume dramas are more of a comfort thing. They remind me of watching movies with my family on a Sunday and you pretty much know what’s going to happen in them anyway. Unless you’re watching Downton Abbey. THEN ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.
Which brings me to this post. Here are ten things I’ve learned from watching these miniseries and films, referencing not only what I’ve seen recently, but what I’ve watched in the past as well. In this case I’m using the term “costume drama” loosely, applying it to just about anything period.
Also, I’m giving you fair warning. There are some spoilers ahead.
1) It’s all about the Benjamins (oh wait, I mean pounds per annum).
People in costume dramas are obsessed with money. They talk about it a lot, who makes what and how much and where they live and what they own. Especially if they’re dudes. In costume dramas men have all of the money (with few exceptions) because women were still considered commodities/house slaves at the time.
Also, it’s usually the women who do the talking about the money, gossiping among themselves. These scenes take place during formal parties, over dinner or in carriages. I don’t know, it’s just really juicy stuff to be talking about.
Part of the fun is that costume dramas are kind of like Monopoly, so it’s no wonder. There’s money out there- why not try to get your hands on it? Besides, it’s rare that characters’ financial situations remain the same. Sometimes someone ends up with all the railroads while others end up going straight to jail. This is usually due to a gambling addiction or what characters call “bad investments.”
However, it’s more common that our protagonists make their way up in the world, and the most popular way to accomplish this brings me to point #2 (especially if said protagonist is a girl).
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2) Marriage is inevitable.
If you’re watching a costume drama then chances are there will be a wedding. Maybe more than one depending on the story. Back in the day people didn’t have Facebook or Nintendo Wiis so what could they do for fun? Answer #1: dances and balls. Answer #2: get married.
This is another thing characters talk about a lot: marriage. Particularly marrying into money. Nothing is more attractive to the women in these stories than a guy who is loaded. Fortunately a lot of those guys are super good looking because they are played by ACTORS. Sometimes their personalities come in second to how pretty they are.
Sadly, chances are if a guy is rich and not good looking then he is evil or some sort of obstacle to the plot. Like a marriage proposal that gets rejected by the female lead. Sad, but true. Let’s just say female audiences don’t want their fantasies destroyed.
In a way costume dramas imply that marriage is the end-all to our being. But there are also some that remind us that marriage can be a complete hell (The Buccaneers, The Forsyte Saga), or even worse:
Remember this guy? If you’re a costume nerd you will. Further proof that marriage can be a real bitch.
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3) If two people who hardly know each other fall in love after two seconds then you should be emotionally invested in them, no questions asked. “But I want character developme-” SHUT UP YOU SHOULD BE EMOTIONALLY INVESTED.
Sometimes you hardly know the lovebirds you’re supposed to be rooting for or why you’re supposed to like them. Sometimes this is a subplot. Other times it’s front and center. Either way you’re kind of in it for the long haul. By long haul I mean from two to four to six hours.
This is a personal thing for me. It doesn’t apply to every costume drama out there, but by God it’s annoying when it happens. I prefer stories where I get to know the people in them. I don’t like to be handed blank slates I can project myself on because my brain doesn’t work that way.
Of course, it’s sad to watch two pretty people have things not work out for them. Sometimes it’s hilarious. I think I may have been the only person who burst out laughing when Bossiney (Ioan Gruffudd) got run over by a carriage in The Forsyte Saga.
Why? I didn’t know much about him, other than the fact that I was supposed to like him for some reason. It was hard since he yelled a lot, threw himself at a married woman, abandoned his fiancé and was pretty much “Me first!” all of the time. Which kind of brings me to #3.
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4) These aren’t assholes, these are love interests.
There’s nothing costume dramas love more than a guy with dark hair who looks pissed off all the time. The only exception I’ve encountered is Soames Forsyte, who has red hair and runs on two gears: creepy and wooden as well as super creepy and wooden. There’s also a third gear- super-rapey- but he only uses that once.
The funny thing is that it doesn’t matter what these men do, at least not to the women who are watching this stuff. Colin Firth could drown a bag of kittens but if he looks tortured and his shirt is wet then it’s a-OK. It’s because he’s dark and mysterious and needs someone to hold him. If you disagree then you just don’t get it.
In some cases said pissed off guy is actually misunderstood. I guess Mr. Darcy falls into this category depending on who is playing him. He does act like a complete asshole for half of the story, though. That’s indisputable.
Other characters are harder to defend. It’s kind of obvious that Charlotte and Emily Brontë had messed up tastes when it came to men, yet their male protagonists have pervaded the female imagination for over 150 years. It doesn’t matter that they manipulate, lie, beat people up, torture animals, imprison women in their houses or try to commit bigamy. I have two possible theories for why this is:
1) Because they’re supposedly “hot.”
2) The feminist movement has a long, long way to go.
And yes, even though Soames rapes his wife there are women out there (particularly online) who are like, “OMG SOAMES 4EVA.” Although Soames evolves and proves himself to be more human and complex, I can’t condone what he did or consider him someone to fantasize about. Do I understand why he did things? Somewhat. Forget about it because he’s played by Damien Lewis? Sorry. No.
North & South‘s Mr. Thornton was also problematic for me. Here is someone whose introduction involves him beating the hell out of a peasant. From there on out he is consistently rude and unpleasant to be around. Nevertheless, when this miniseries aired BBC’s message board had to be shut down because so many women took an interest in the character and the actor who portrayed him, Richard Armitage. Eventually the series has a few scenes thrown in to show that he does have feelings (“Look! He is being nice to a child!”) but overall he looks like this in every scene:
So where does that leave us? Well, I guess the scowling, mysterious guy just doesn’t appeal to me in any way, shape or form. It doesn’t matter how attractive he is. However, for scores of women he is the ideal, mostly because the power of feminine love might reform him.
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5) “No” means “Yes.”
This kind of links to #4. It’s common for a female protagonist to find herself in love/hate with a brooding rich guy or a complete rake. These feelings are complicated and often lead to heated exchanges or failed marriage proposals.
When this happens a seasoned costume nerd knows it’s probably a case of “no means yes.” If a woman hates a man then they’re probably going to get married and have, like, ten thousand of his babies. A large mansion may be involved as well.
This probably stems from Pride & Prejudice, which features a rejection (pictured above) so painful that even a frat boy could understand it.
However, these botched declarations of love often open a door rather than shutting it forever.
Unless you’re Mr. Collins. That rejection was 500% real.
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6) Dude, if you break up with a guy in the 1800s, you just might die. Of what? Well, you get sick, but there isn’t a name for it.
This is a topic that has been explored in academia and the occasional thesis for a PhD. Characters like Marianne Dashwood, Jane Eyre, and Catherine Linton suffer painful break-ups and seem to give up on living. But here’s where it gets interesting. They all do the same thing: run out into a rain storm and disappear, effectively scaring the shit out of everyone who cares about them. When they’re recovered they’re delirious and/or on the brink of death.
But what are they sick with, exactly? It’s never quite clear and to most viewers it doesn’t matter. The cause isn’t medical, it’s due to a broken heart. Duh.
This plays into how women’s health was perceived at the time. Back then people believed it didn’t take much to make the “fair” or “weaker” sex fall apart. The reasons were obvious and widely accepted: “their bodies are frail,” “they’re more vulnerable,” “they’re prone to ‘hysteria'” (which, strangely enough, could only be cured by hand jobs), etc. Overall it was believed women simply felt more deeply than men. Therefore the devastation of losing a love could kill them.
Sometimes the woman who is suffering from illness will survive. This plot development is there just to drive home how bad the break-up actually is. But here’s what bothers me: it implies that making yourself sick over a guy is okay or somewhat normal. Of course, in the 21st century this shouldn’t be happening anymore.
There are occasions when a character isn’t so lucky and her body simply gives out. However, I’ve noticed this more in French costume dramas (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Une Vieille Maîtresse, etc.). I’m not sure why, but I guess when it comes to illnesses France plays for keeps. Come to think of it…
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7) If someone coughs, they’re going to die. That’s just science.
This is something that not only applies to costume dramas, but other genres as well. David Sedaris noted it during a screening of The End Of The Affair (1999): “[It’s] a device most often seen in TV movies of the week: everything’s going along just fine and then one of the characters either coughs or sneezes, meaning that within twenty minutes he or she will be dead.”
In most cases it’s TB that takes a character down, although back then people called it “consumption.” This also has a tendency to happen to poor, good-natured characters who don’t deserve to die. But it’s kind of expected. What’s a costume drama without someone dying in bed? That’s like asking, “What’s a Nicolas Sparks novel without someone dying of cancer?”
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8) Speaking of which, old people die in chairs. A lot.
The way people pass away in costume dramas is almost always the same. Like I mentioned before there are a lot of scenes concerning deathbeds. At least during those scenes the character’s loved ones knows what’s coming.
However, the second most popular place for a person to die, particularly if they’re old, is sitting in a chair. Preferably outdoors. Seriously, it’s like the #2 leading cause of death in old people. Chairs just flat-out murder them. In fact, if I see Michael Gambon or Maggie Smith appear onscreen I immediately think, “DON’T SIT DOWN.”
It isn’t that dying in a chair is a bad thing. In fact, I think this is the costume drama’s idealized death. It’s such a pleasant way to go. The deceased is usually discovered by a younger family member or friend who truly loved them. Usually he/she has made a sweet last request. A tray of food. Some flowers. Champagne. A song on the piano.
Yeah, it’s kind of cute. In North & South one of the characters, Mr. Bell (Brian Protheroe), seems to be in perfect health but admits he’s going to give all of his money away and go die in Argentina. He talks about this in an elegant, business-like tone, like it’s something he has decided: “I shall be pleased to be warmed by the sun again.”
Translation: “I am totally going to die in a chair.”
When this doesn’t happen it’s kind of shocking. In Any Human Heart (2010) Jim Broadbent goes outside to sit in the sunshine. You know he is going to die at any moment. He even has his last glass of wine next to him. When he actually got up and walked somewhere else before dying my brain almost melted. I was like, “Whoa! The writers thought outside the box this time.”
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9) NO ONE WILL BE POOR. EVER.
It’s rare that our main characters end up destitute or living in uncomfortable circumstances. That just doesn’t happen. They get married to money (but almost always for love) or get an inheritance- sometimes from someone who died sitting in a chair! There are some cases where they find out they’ve been rich all along but someone has been hiding their wealth from them.
It’s commonplace for the story to end on a high note- a shot of the beautiful house where the characters live, the sound of laughter, a kiss or two and lots and lots of green. It seems a lot of costume dramas conclude during spring or summer. The sun is out and everything is suffused with golden light and hope.
Every now and then things are unclear. After watching Ang Lee’s version of Sense & Sensibility (1995) someone brought up that Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars aren’t rich exactly, and it’s never quite clear if Edward regains his inheritance. But it doesn’t matter. Not to me anyway. If I lived in nice house and hung out at Alan Rickman’s mansion all of the time I’d be considered one of the luckiest people alive. Also, having Kate Winslet as a sister would be a plus.
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10) If all seems lost, don’t worry. The plot will resolve itself in the last five minutes.
This is the case for soooo many costume dramas. Sometimes resolutions come out of nowhere. You know that one character who was going to ruin everything? Oh, he fell down some stairs and died. That meddling former lover who was blackmailing someone? She changed her mind and has suddenly decided to move on. That unfortunate misunderstanding? It’s explained away and the path is cleared to happiness.
Lovers don’t admit their feelings until the final two minutes of the film and share their timid first kiss, or it randomly cuts to them getting married. The music swells. Fade out.
The end of a costume drama has never surprised me.
Of course this isn’t to imply I don’t like costume dramas. I just see them for what they are, both the good and bad, and will continue to watch them when I find the time. I wish there some other rules they could abide by, but hey, these are mostly adapted from books. You can’t change characters and plotlines too much.
My one request: I would be amused if there was always an old guy shouting “Capital! Capital!” at some point. I think that’s hilarious. When my friends and I decided to play a drinking game to Titanic (1997) I would say it whenever an old guy showed up. Because as far as I’m concerned that’s what they should be saying.
And for the most part that’s how I feel about costume dramas, anyway. I’m that old guy who has seen it all but claps along anyway and is reasonably cheerful about it.