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Tuesday 16 July 2019

Paul Whitington: When good period dramas do not let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story

As some recent releases have shown, good period dramas do not let historical accuracy get in the way of a good story

Stretching the truth: Saoirse Ronan in the lead role for Mary Queen of Scots, which has been criticised for not sticking to historical facts
Stretching the truth: Saoirse Ronan in the lead role for Mary Queen of Scots, which has been criticised for not sticking to historical facts
Inconvenient truth: Braveheart is considered one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Cheeks pinched, and looking sternly beautiful, Saoirse Ronan delivers another astonishing performance in Josie Rourke's new film Mary Queen of Scots. So often the embattled 16th-century monarch has been presented to us as a victim, a papist dupe, a wavering impediment to Queen Elizabeth's glorious reign, but here Mary takes centre stage.

She's just 18 when she returns to Scotland from France to take the reigns of a chilly kingdom she's been the notional head of since infancy. In a country riven by sectarian strife, the French-speaking, Catholic Mary infuriates reformist firebrands like John Knox. She also faces threats from within her own family, and from further south, where Mary's claim on the English throne worries Elizabeth's advisers.

Mary attempts to forge a friendship with her cousin queen (Margot Robbie), but the men who surround them both are determined that will never happen. Mary Queen of Scots - which is absorbing, slow-moving but full of detail - has been pretty much ignored thus far by the various awards. It's a very solid drama, but its writer Beau Willimon has been criticised in some quarters for a scene in which Mary and Elizabeth meet at a remote location on the Borders and have a free and frank discussion.

It's nicely done, and dramatically satisfying to have these embattled women whose fortunes we've been following to finally have a face-to-face confrontation. However, there's absolutely no historical evidence to suggest that the two monarchs ever met. Does that matter? Only if you think that history is set in stone and ought to be slavishly adhered to by entertainers.

Inconvenient truth: Braveheart is considered one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time
Inconvenient truth: Braveheart is considered one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time

Another recent period drama, The Favourite, has been rightly lavished with praise by critics and has become the Oscar frontrunner. But when I interviewed its director Yorgos Lanthimos last month, he wisely admitted that when it comes to history, "you can't know what is really true". It is not the job of moviemakers to "make history lessons", but to create "something that feels in its own right complete and also relevant to our times". In other words, historical facts shouldn't get in the way of a good yarn.

In Lanthimos' film, Olivia Colman's 18th-century monarch, Queen Anne, is as loud and histrionic as a pampered opera diva. Was the real queen as outrageous? Probably not, and she and her rival ladies in waiting certainly did not use the blunt and unadorned Estuary English employed in the film. But instead of getting bogged down in detail, The Favourite uses humour and dramatic pyrotechnics to make its story feel urgent, and real.

The more slavishly period films cling to preconceived notions about how people behaved in the distant past, the more boring they are to watch. In 1984, Miloš Forman's period drama Amadeus won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and became one of the biggest box-office hits of that year. It starred Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, portraying him as a debauched and venal wastrel whose divine genius so infuriates rival composer Antonio Salieri that the older man sets out to kill him.

It was nonsense from start to finish. Mozart was something of a peacock, and did have a fondness for scatological jokes, but cannot possibly have been as irritating as the cackling buffoon portrayed by Hulce. And Antonio Salieri was a respected Viennese composer and teacher who seems to have had a friendly and cordial relationship with Mozart. But where would the fun have been in watching a film like that?

When Kirk Douglas publicly announced in 1960 that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was the real author of Spartacus, he effectively brought the era of Communist witch-hunts in Hollywood to an end. Trumbo was a truly great scriptwriter, but how much did he really know about Spartacus? Not a lot, because no one really does, outside Roman accounts of the slave uprising he led, and the fact that he hailed from the southern Balkans, and had once been a gladiator.

But in a way, that lack of hard fact was an advantage for Trumbo, who was free to create the sweeping tale of the fierce Thracian slave who leads a revolt at his gladiator stable, falls in love with Jean Simmons, takes on the might of Rome's armies and ends up being crucified on the Appian Way. In fact, he probably died on the battlefield, and the famous "I'm Spartacus" scene was pure, inspired fiction.

The finished film was cut before release, including a controversial scene in which Laurence Olivier's Roman general Crassus has his slave (Tony Curtis) sponge his back in the bath and speaks in code about homosexual love. It was put back in a 1991 restoration, with Anthony Hopkins ghosting Olivier's voice. Thankfully, that kind of moral censorship of history seems to be a thing of the past: the biopic Colette, which was released a few weeks back, might not have been made at all a decade or two, as it deals frankly with the great French writer's attempt to live an openly gay life in early 20th-century Paris.

Good historical dramas often have more to say about the present than the past. Laurence Olivier's 1944 film Henry V was the first film based on a Shakespeare play to become a box-office success. It was beautifully made, and starred Olivier himself as the monarch with the pudding-bowl haircut who leads England's armies to glorious victory at Agincourt.

But Olivier was working in conjunction with the British government, who'd provided some of the finance, and had been specifically ordered by Churchill to create a film that would evoke former glories and cheer up a jaded nation.

Winston also requested he drop some of the more unsavoury aspects of Henry's character that had been highlighted by Shakespeare. What resulted was a film steeped not in the past but the present, offering solace to a war-weary public. Incidentally, much of it was shot on the Powerscourt Estate in Co Wicklow.

Also shot in Ireland was Mel Gibson's Braveheart, which won five Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The production was a shot in the arm for our moribund film industry, and Gibson was terrific as William Wallace, the Scottish noble who paints his face blue and leads a ragtag army against the invading English.

Except he probably didn't paint his face because he wasn't a 5th-century Celt, he probably eschewed tartan rags for the more sensible battle attire of armour, and may well have been a more sophisticated fellow than Mel's bare-chested warrior. Braveheart has been described as one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time, but the inconvenient truth is it's also great fun.

Storytelling shortcuts are commonplace in period dramas, and with good reason: stick too close to the dry facts of history and you'll end up with a boring film that imparts nothing because no one goes to see it. In Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole was a 6ft 2in Adonis: the real Lawrence was 5ft 4in and kind of funny looking.

In escaping the Nazis, the real Von Trapp family did not cross the snow-capped Alps to freedom as depicted in The Sound of Music, but trudged across a railway track into Italy.

Marie Antoinette was not the silly, faddish, fashion-obsessed twit portraying by Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's 2006 biopic, but a cultured and politically astute woman whose famous line "let them eat cake" was either a misquote or never said at all.

Pocahontas, the 17th-century Native American woman who was the subject of a lush Disney animation in the mid-1990s, was 11 or 12 when she met the dashing explorer Captain John Smith, and did not fall in love with him. Instead she was captured later on by white settlers, ended up marrying a tobacco farmer and converting to Christianity. But who'd have been able to stay awake during that dreary cartoon?

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