Heritage Films

L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), the novel that inspired what may have been the first contemporary heritage film, offers the perfect epigram for the form: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." Significantly, many of the hallmarks of the heritage film are present in this early example: directed in 1970 by Joseph Losey (1909–1984), a transplanted American (many heritage films emanate from national "outsiders"), The Go-Between is a stately, handsome adaptation of a respected novel set in a pre-war English country house and involving the sexual maturation of its young protagonist. Moreover, many of the questions arising from attempts to define the heritage film are also present in this example. Is it a form that has served to bolster the British film industry? or Does it represent a kind of filmic colonization of British stories and screens by Britain's former possessions? Does the form manifest geographical limitations that mean that it might be better denominated the English heritage film?

Film scholars cannot even agree on whether heritage films constitute a genre, partly because such films share only loosely associated tropes or iconographical elements and partly because they so readily appear to collapse into neighboring genres, such as the costume film, the historical film, the war film, and the prestige literary adaptation. In practice, the heritage film ranges widely over source material (from E. M. Forster and Henry James to working-class autobiographies from World War II), era, and nation: there are French heritage films, including La Reine Margot ( Queen Margot , Patrice Chéreau, 1994) and Manon des sources ( Manon of the Spring , Claude Berri, 1986), and now German heritage films dealing with the Holocaust, such as Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, 1999). The locus classicus of the heritage film nonetheless remains the narrative of pre–World War I or interwar England; it is often an adaptation of an esteemed literary property and typically invokes what might be termed heritage landmarks, such as Oxbridge colleges and National Trust properties.

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