So is the heritage film merely light entertainment for export—a kind of film tourism that reflects American expectations about a Britain ossified in a long Edwardian summer? Does it undermine any hope of representing Britain in all its complexity and change? Claire Monk argues that critics who dismiss the heritage film as ideologically suspect, boringly predictable, or merely a creature of American taste approach it too reductively. Part of the problem is indeed the capaciousness of the term "heritage film," coupled with the assumption that it describes a stable, unchanging genre (2002, p. 7). Monk has attempted to periodize heritage films, separating those of the 1980s and early 1990s from later entrants, which she characterizes as "post-heritage" by virtue of their self-conscious foregrounding of strategies designed to subvert the supposed conservatism of the heritage film or to undercut the primacy of the potentially too-dominant mise-en-scène (Monk in Vincendeau, p. 7). She argues that critics too readily assume that heritage films operate in ways entirely analogous to, say, National Trust landmarks—that a heritage film has a unitary, conservative meaning derived exclusively from its setting. As Monk observes, this approach hardly allows for the complexity of the interactions among a film's characterization, narrative, and dialogue, all of which may under-cut the potential conservatism of reviving the past by filming its surviving material manifestations (2002, p. 188). Monk thus sees important distinctions among heritage films—for example, A Room with a View is considerably less conservative than Chariots of Fire , because the former permits its female protagonist to come to an important understanding about her agency and the nature of her sexual desires while the latter offers a less complex story line concerned with the creation and training of the British Olympic team in 1924.
Critics such as Monk and Richard Dyer see an exploration of sexuality, including homosexuality, as key to many heritage films. At the very least, it is fair to say that one of the major plot engines of the heritage film is the Bildungsroman , the coming to maturity of the young protagonist, typically dramatized at a moment of difficult self-discovery, as in Maurice (Ivory, 1987), The Wings of the Dove (Iain Softley, 1997), or Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998), all of whose protagonists possess desires that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with social expectations. Stories of homosexual desire and illicit female pursuit of agency or control fit very naturally into the framework of the bildungsroman.
Characteristically, even the earliest cycle of heritage films offers the spectacle of desire often frustrated but sometimes achieved, causing critics to debate the question of the heritage film's progressivism or lack thereof. Are the films progressive because they offer the spectacle of gay men or women longing for things they ought not to have (but sometimes get)? Are they conservative because they appear to admire the past in which these things were often denied to these people?
As a production team, Merchant-Ivory was responsible for more than thirty films over 42 years, making the partnership of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and novelist/screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala among the most productive and durable of independent filmmakers. While the team remained active through 2005, Merchant also increasingly directed his own projects, including three features since Cotton Mary (1999).
The team's first feature, The Householder (1963), was the first to involve Jhabvala's services as screenwriter; showing the influence of Indian director Satyajit Ray, it led to further projects exploring Indian life and celebrating the sensibility and richness of its cinema. Shakespeare Wallah (1965) narrates the fortunes of a troupe of traveling players, both English and Indian, in the post-Independence, movie-mad 1960s, while Bombay Talkie (1970) analyzes the disastrous association between an English novelist played by Jennifer Kendal and an Indian film star played by her real-life husband, Shashi Kapoor. This sequence of films set in India showcased a number of persistent production strategies, namely the foregrounding of ensemble playing, an ability to enlist the help of more established filmmakers (such as Ray, who wrote the music for Shakespeare Wallah ), a feel for identifying up-and-coming talent (when he worked with Merchant-Ivory, Kapoor had not yet become a major star), and an anthropological sense of place and social fabric reflecting not only the team's interests but also Ivory's beginnings in documentary.
Possibly as a result of their own disparate national and social backgrounds, Merchant-Ivory consistently pursue the question of what a character experiences when he or she attempts to penetrate a closed social milieu, ranging from the desire to master the mores of a foreign culture to the aspiration to control the hierarchies of theater stage or film screen. The indispensable closed social milieu is the sexual couple or close friendship that becomes a sexual triangle with the arrival of an outsider, permitting the intense exploration of patterns of domination within friendship and amorous coupling. Merchant-Ivory films often concern the failure to read social codes, be they those of privileged pre-war Anglophones ( Heat and Dust , 1983; Howards End , 1992; The Remains of the Day , 1993; Savages , 1972), or of modern New York City ( Jane Austen in Manhattan , 1980).Refreshingly, Merchant-Ivory films can imagine that defying social codes does not invariably result in happiness; sometimes their films examine the costs of desire for both the desiring character and society at large.
Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970), Roseland (1977), Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), Heat and Dust (1983), A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), The Golden Bowl (2000), Le Divorce (2003)
Long, Robert Emmet. The Films of Merchant Ivory . (Revised). New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997 .
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: Twenty-One Years of Merchant Ivory Films . London and New York: British Film Institute and Museum of Modern Art, 1983.
Recent heritage films are striking for the large number that foreground activities such as painting (as in Carrington [Christopher Hampton, 1995]) or theater (for instance, Topsy-Turvy [Mike Leigh, 1999] and Finding Neverland [Marc Forster, 2004]) in order to dramatize creative work or activities that might be described as play. In these examples, the heritage film offers the best possible motivations for the minute inspection of mise-en-scène : either it proves to be the very fabric of the narrative, as when Dora Carrington gradually paints every square inch of her cottage in a kind of autobiography of her attachment to Lytton Strachey, or it
presents the details of late nineteenth-century theatrical production as part of the exploration of grown men (W. S. Gilbert and J. M. Barrie) sojourning in extended, profitable fantasy. The heritage film here signals one of its major attractions—that the denial of desire can be perversely sexy, even progressive, particularly when coupled with the satisfactions of carefully wrought spectacle and performance. In short, one of the great appeals of the heritage film is that it bridges the fabled divide in English cinema between fantasy and realism.
Friedman, Lester, ed. Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993; Revised ed., London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
Higson, Andrew. English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama Since 1980 . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Hill, John. British Cinema in the 1980s: Issues and Themes . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
Koepnick, Lutz. "Reframing the Past: Heritage Cinema and Holocaust in the 1990s." New German Critique 87 (2002): 47–82.
Monk, Claire, and Amy Sargeant, eds. British Historical Cinema: The History, Heritage and Costume Film . London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Vincendeau, Ginette, ed. Film/Literature/Heritage: A Sight and Sound Reader . London: British Film Institute, 2001.