Credit: Sony Pictures

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Laura Venning

“[Women] live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us” says Anne Elliott in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. At the beginning of January I had a few self-indulgent, very soggy crying sessions. Even as they were happening, I thought about the impetuous Marianne (Kate Winslet) collapsing onto her bed and sobbing her eyes out in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s a great spectacle of anguish; equally embarrassing and compelling in its showy but painfully human intensity. Experiencing an emotional connection with Marianne was a surprise. Even as a teenager I was drawn to Emma Thompson’s Elinor, the embodiment of Austenian repression, whose unravelling feels like the story’s real raison d’être. Heritage dramas were the first films I saw that were genuinely concerned with those preying feelings of womanhood which Austen described. My shy teenage self found a space where unspoken emotional undercurrents flowed and where female selfhood felt important. Expressing myself has always been a struggle and I still feel affinity with heroines bound to silence by historical social rules and subsequent internalised shame. How frightfully British.

That Austenian repression I responded to is practically synonymous with (and has contributed to) the stereotype of the British as emotionally constipated. The heritage film’s position as a major production trend within British national cinema had already been cemented by the mid 1990s, largely thanks to the output of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, but Sense and Sensibility, alongside the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice in the same year, kick-started the Austen craze. Like it or not, these films are indelibly connected with our national cinema and perceptions of our national identity.

Briefly — what do we mean by heritage? It is both tangible (works of art, buildings, artefacts behind glass, things to be printed on postcards), and intangible (folk traditions, language, cultural attitudes). It is, of course, what we have inherited, and it is both sellable and untouchable, a complex interweaving of commodity and identity surrounding who we are and where we come from.

Twenty six years on from Sense and Sensibility the heritage film (and TV drama) remains one of Britain’s most successful cultural exports, utilising both the tangible and intangible to perpetuate a marketable incarnation of our nationhood. We know what this looks like: glances across a ballroom, opulent costumes and the rolling hills of southern England. Britain does almost exclusively equal England here, with characters rarely straying beyond the home counties. These films are part of a wider heritage industry: see the film, visit the country house, buy the tie-in edition of the novel in the gift shop and have a scone in the café. And those scones are not to be sniffed at: a 2019 report from Historic England states that the heritage sector produces a total of £31 billion annually for the UK economy. Jane Austen herself appears on the £10 note.

Do these films have any cinematic value? Questioning them is hardly a new endeavour. As early as 1991 the literary scholar Cairns Craig  lambasted Merchant/Ivory in Sight and Sound, calling their productions “film as conspicuous consumption” and “drowned in elegance” by their display of the lavish lifestyles of the English elite. As Higson identifies in English Heritage, English Cinema (2008), although rural poverty and the lives of servants sometimes appear (Downton Abbey, 2010-2015, has an edge here, despite its forelock-tugging), the genre’s projection of national identity is “bound to the upper and upper middle classes, while the nation itself is often reduced to the soft pastoral landscape of southern England, rarely tainted by the modernity of urbanisation or industrialisation.” Indeed, “what may seem to be a national representation is in reality an international mythology.”

Craig argued that the rise of the heritage film in the 1980s was “symptomatic of the crisis of identity through which England passed during the Thatcher years,” a conservative need to uphold the old by turning away from postmodernism, postindustrialism and multiculturalism. The emotional repression that made me feel understood is seen here as another expression of that conservatism, the suppression of any kind of change. I can certainly make a case for these films’ prioritisation of women’s inner lives, but I am inhibited by my embarrassment of the undeniable: the overwhelming majority of them cannot be called subversive.

And what about cultural value now? On 7th June 2020, a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century merchant who made much of his fortune from the slave trade and was deputy governor of the notorious Royal African Company, was torn down by Black Lives Matter demonstrators and hurled into Bristol Harbour. Colston’s reputation as a philanthropist went largely unchallenged until the 1990s, when his ties to the slave trade became more widely known. The images of its collapse were electrifying; an unflinching confrontation of Britain’s colonial history. In response, both The National Trust and English Heritage released statements regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and their commitment to addressing the real histories of their sites and monuments. Imperialism is our inescapable national heritage.

Will glossy onscreen English heritage be impacted? It’s too early to assess, but a shift was already in motion that suggests a tentative acceptance of multiculturalism. Amma Asante’s Belle (2013) told the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of an African slave and a naval officer. She was raised by her great uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson), who famously ruled that slavery was not binding in British law. Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) adopted colour-blind casting while Bridgerton (2020), an enjoyably daft Netflix Regency-set romp, casts Black actors in several major roles.

Copperfield was the target of the most venomous backlash by far, seemingly due to a racist horror that a character so emblematic of English literature could be portrayed by Dev Patel. Dido Belle was a real historical figure, an indisputable contradiction of the false belief that there were no Black people in Britain before the Windrush, while Bridgerton’s stylistic anachronisms seem to slightly insulate it from thinly-veiled complaints about authenticity. But all three heritage dramas still steer clear of directly confronting colonialism. Race is not addressed at all in Copperfield, in Bridgerton one throwaway line disregards the Regency period’s dependence on slavery, and even in Belle the Lord Chief Justice is presented as more sympathetic towards abolition than he was in reality.

There’s even less sign of a disassembling of that fascination with the upper classes. One of the last major releases to wriggle under the wire pre-pandemic was Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. (2020). Austen may have been visually refashioned for the Instagram generation with its stylish pastel colour palette and fashion shoot-esque cinematography (#regencyaesthetic), but it’s hardly a reinvention. Emma Woodhouse is Austen’s richest heroine by far, and the lavish sets and costumes threaten to overwhelm the frame. Bridgerton is extravagant even by the genre’s standards thanks to its Shondaland budget. At pains to reassure viewers that its protagonists are Nice Aristocrats, Bridgerton’s Duke and Duchess of Hastings are amusingly shocked to discover that their tenants have been mistreated while they were off enjoying the London season. There’s debate as to how sympathetic The Crown (2016-) is towards the royals, but the resurgence of Diana fever feels significant. 

The British film industry may well fall back on heritage to resuscitate itself in the months and years to come. But can we still indulge in the fantasy of heritage Britain guilt-free, even with a comparatively more progressive approach? It’s difficult to imagine as we experience the impact of Brexit, the national Covid death toll surges to the highest in the world under a Conservative government that is so reluctant to feed the nation’s hungry children, and think tank IFS reports that Covid mortality rates in the most deprived communities in Britain were around twice as high as those in the least deprived

I’ve found solace in the quietly emotional worlds of heritage films, in that tug between sense and sensibility. But I, like the characters I feel kinship with, have the privilege of being free from economic hardship. I even have an advantage over Austen’s heroines in that I don’t have to get married to maintain that financial security. My own heritage, my whiteness and my place within the class system, impacts my interaction with these visions of national heritage. Who am I to wag my finger at anyone else’s indulgence and assume that these films and series are being engaged with uncritically by a conservative audience?

Just as The National Trust and English Heritage have promised to reshape their presentations of history and nationhood, so should the heritage film. Challenging its definition might be the best place to begin. Small Axe (2020), Steve McQueen’s anthology of films focused on London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s, and is arguably more emblematic of Britain’s heritage than corsets and carriages. And yet I’m not sure we can ignore that a stubborn nostalgia for a bucolic Britain which never really existed is also part of our national identity.

Sense and Sensibility closes with Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who we’ve learnt was stationed in India, dressed in his army uniform for his wedding day and throwing coins to the village children. I can’t think of another image in a heritage film that so neatly encapsulates this uneasy interplay between romance, class and colonialism. And yet, perhaps despite my better judgement, I always cry at the end.