Heritage Films


It is in part through their treatment of landscape that heritage films as a group begin to display what might be viewed as generic characteristics. John Hill suggests that the heritage film typically focuses on the relationships among a group of characters rather than on the destiny of a single character; and has a slow pace, a preference for dialogue over action, and an approach to mise-en-scène that exceeds motivations found in the narrative or that does not necessarily express characters' emotions (1999, p. 80). Places and objects are displayed rather than dramatized, leading to what Andrew Higson calls "heritage space"—the film serves as a jewel box for the arrangement and contemplation of heritage properties (Higson in Friedman, p. 117). This approach to technique often emphasizes mise-en-scène over other cinematic elements, such as editing, and is a large part of the pleasure in spectacle to be found in such films.

Critical response to this stylistic aspect has been divided, with conservative critics arguing that British film should explore and valorize a glorious past, and left-leaning critics expressing concern over the often limited heritage on display, particularly in terms of the exclusion of working-class experience. Working-class characters may function merely as observers or chorus members in dramas often consumed with the problems of those

"Heritage space" in The Remains of the Day (James Ivory, 1993), with Anthony Hopkins.
possessing or seeking an independent income. The Thatcher government's investment in the projection of heritage culture as a manifestation of a revived Britain (witnessed by the National Heritage Acts of 1980 and 1983) added to the ideologically suspect nature of heritage films in the eyes of some critics (Higson, pp. 51–54). Lutz Koepnick has argued that the heritage film produces "usable and consumable pasts … history as a site of comfort and orientation" (p. 51)—hence the occasional dismissal of heritage films as the "Laura Ashley school of filmmaking." A number of critics have noticed that the heritage film's desire for authenticity and its close attention to the look of objects create a kind of break between images and narrative, with objects constituting a conservative commentary on what might have originally been a work of social satire (such as the 1988 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust by Charles Sturridge [b. 1951]).

Heritage films' characteristic contest between the consequences of using period objects and the critical projects of their source texts may further intensify the critical uncertainty about whether such films genuinely or reliably constitute a genre. One way of addressing that uncertainty has been to consider what kinds of audiences consume these films, a question considerably complicated by the international flavor of the production and consumption of heritage films. While at first blush the project of the heritage film would appear to be to bring Britain's glorious past to the screen, viewers may be struck by British heritage films' exceptional reliance upon American audiences not only for their ultimate global box-office success but also for access to British audiences. The average Briton attends one film in a theater annually; most film consumption in Britain takes place via the television and VCR—Britons have one of the world's highest rates of VCR use. Consequently, any "British" cinema is necessarily mediated by television and probably influenced by the tastes of other Anglophone audiences. In a pattern that heritage films pioneered but that now transcends genre, theme, and film style, British films are often given only limited or no release at all domestically until an American run has established their marketability, at which point they are re-exported to their country of manufacture.

Other articles you might like:

Follow City-Data.com Founder
on our Forum or Twitter

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: