An Engagement with the Past

31Jan05

This paper attempts to outline some of the characteristic features of Heritage Cinema, with an analysis of the Merchant – Ivory Production; Howards End.

Howards End, one of the best known and most commercially successful heritage films, was released in 1992. With its attention to period detail, its self consciously artistic production values, relatively conventional story telling style, slow moving and gentle narrative about English elites of the Edwardian period, it went on to win numerous awards and critical appreciation. The generic identity of the film is a pastiche of styles, mixing the ‘absurd’ coincidences of melodrama and the ‘frothy’ romantic liaisons of the woman’s picture with the ‘good taste’ of the reverential literary adaptation. The aesthetics of heritage-display coexist with an almost parodied version of working class realism for the presentation of the Basts’ home and milieu, while psychological realism is interspersed with the mannered acting and stylized gestures of the English theatrical tradition.

Heritage films are shot with high budgets and production values by A-list directors, they use stars, polished lighting and camerawork, many changes of décor and extras, well researched interior designs, and classical or classical inspired music. Their lavish mise–en–scène typically displays the bourgeoisie or aristocracy. The aesthetics of most heritage films often differ from that of mainstream Hollywood. The decoupage and the camerawork tend towards the languid. To illustrate this point, we may look at the opening sequence of Howards End. The art nouveau title card is followed by one establishing Forster’s authorship (‘based on the novel by…’), which then parts in the middle, and draws to either side to reveal the diegesis, like a curtain pulling back at the start of a stage play. Mrs. Wilcox is seen meandering slowly through the garden at Howards End at twilight, her dress trailing in the long grass. She wanders past the windows of the house and looks in to see her family playing a board game and the maids clearing dining table. Although almost nothing happens, it is a highly charged, languid sequence, with its display of charming period costumes and the picturesque rural setting of the house. There is the full use of long takes (the first three shots last for nearly two and a half minutes), a moving camera, deep focus and dissolves between shots. In the fourth shot of the film, in another long take discreetly shot from a distance, we see Helen Schlegal and the younger Wilcox son steal out of the house and into the garden, where they embrace and kiss.

There is usually a preference for deep staging and for long and medium shots, rather than for close-ups and rapid or dramatic cutting in heritage cinema. The camera is characteristically fluid, but camera movement often seems dictated less by a desire to follow the movement of characters than by a desire to offer the spectator a more aesthetic angle on the period setting and the objects which fill it. Self–conscious crane shots and high angle shots divorced from character point of view, for instance, are often used to display ostentatiously the seductive mise–en–scène of the films. In Howards End, shots of grand buildings in London or Oxford colleges are often shot from a high angle or low angle positions which seem to serve no narrative purpose, but show off the buildings wonderfully. On one visit to Oxford, Margaret is seen outside with her brother Tibby; the shot is carefully framed in order to capture as much of the architectural splendor as possible, even though it again serves no narrative purpose. On another occasion, while touring Henry Wilcox’s latest property acquisition, the viewer is treated to a montage of paintings, which retrospectively is anchored in the narrative by a subsequent shot of Margaret Schlegal looking at the paintings.

Heritage films constitute a ‘genre’ only in a loose sense and may include elements of other genres such as comic moments, musical interludes or gothic/romance features. There is an emphasis from narrative to setting and a ‘celebration of the past, rather than investigating it.’ Many ‘heritage films’ dwell on the exploits of the English upper classes and middle classes in the late Victorian period or in the early part of the twentieth century, between 1880 and 1940. They are fascinated by a limited class fraction with inherited or accumulated wealth and cultural capital. However, for all their elegance and allure, heritage films seem very often to deal with the last of England, or at least the last of old England. In films like A Passage to India, the focus is on the end of empire. Elsewhere, it is the death of liberal England (Regeneration), the betrayal of the nation, the corrupt decadence and moral decay of the upper classes (The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, A Handful of Dust) or the displacement of the aristocracy by a new meritocracy (Chariots of Fire). The idea of heritage implies a sense of inheritance, but it is precisely that which is on the wane in these films. Several films thus focus on a crisis of inheritance among the privileged classes, or the threat of disinheritance. Thus, Sense and Sensibility sees the female members of a wealthy family disinherited and thereby thrust into relative poverty. In the Wings of the Dove, a young woman hangs grimly on to her place in English society, while having an affair with a working journalist and manoeuvring to inherit the fortunes of a New York heiress.

Howards End is a comment on the transformation of British society at the turn of a century. The story explores tensions and slippages in identity by probing beneath the mannered surface and throwing characters from different backgrounds into confrontation with one another. England thus becomes a seething mass of tensions, in which no one’s identity seems pure, stable or authentic. The Schlegals are part German, they are the artists, civilized, polite, thoroughly decent. The identities of the sisters shift in the film. Helen becomes progressively less decorous, more obsessive, more hysterical, and more gothic in her appearance. Her sister Margaret’s identity is equally fluid, as she moves from radical New Woman, independent, intelligent and philanthropic, to devoted wife, reasonable, respected, tolerant and understanding. The Wilcoxes are the industrialized, moneymaking, and backboned. The story concerns the fortunes of a certain Leonard Bast as he is bandied back and forth between both families as they fight and reconcile between themselves. One family gets him a job, the other gets him fired. This doesn’t seem too much of a problem to either family. They fail to appreciate the world Bast lives in, they belong to a different world, a different class. Responsibility and hypocrisy are the names of the game in this film. Social standing and gentility do not free one of responsibility to one’s others and this comment upon Edwardian society and its class values cannot help but to comment upon the hypocrisy inherent in the system.

The narratives of most heritage films are typically slow moving, episodic, and de – dramatized; they do not normally adopt a fast pace or narrative energy. They are also frequently organized around several central protagonists, which encourages a more dispersed narrative structure and an emphasis on ensemble performance. With dramatic, goal directed action downplayed, this narrative structure typically creates a space in which character, place, atmosphere and milieu can be explored. In Howards End, the far too slow moving and episodic narrative is in part of the film’s realism.

Heritage films also find a central place for social figures often marginalized in mainstream cinema: women, gays and lesbians, ethnic nationalities, the lower classes. They very often seem to move marginalized social groups from the ‘footnotes of history to the narrative center’. The heritage film therefore creates an important space for playing contemporary anxieties and fantasies of national identity (Chariots of Fire), taboo subjects such as homoerotic passions (Orlando), class and power (Howards End, Mrs. Brown)

With Howards End, the new England has been Europeanized and feminized by the promotion of the Schlegel sisters and their modified values. Margaret, in particular, holds a real power within the community established at the end of the film. In the final sequence, as Henry speaks of leaving the house to Margaret, the camera tracks towards her, while all the other characters have been kept distant from the camera. It is as if she holds the center of the film’s hybrid drama. And when she and her husband go into the garden to bid farewell to his children, she grasps his as if to prevent him from falling over: she literally enables him to stand upright.

Howards End narrates England as a hybrid space and Englishness as made up of various, composite, constructed identities. Even with an attempt at stable closure, the tensions remain, suggesting instability, insecurity and the threat of plurality within the community. The film is liberal in its muted critique of capitalism and its social effects, its promotion of feminist principles and its celebration of multiculturalism.

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