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By Alex Lynchehaun
On the 6th of March 2009, a shot rang out that changed the course of history—literally. That was the release date of the international blockbuster The Young Victoria, which reached new heights of historical inaccuracy with its innovative depiction of the attempted assassination of Queen Victoria. According to the film, the bullet was only prevented from carrying out its deadly purpose by the courageous intervention of Prince Albert, who unhesitatingly leapt in its way, thereby lodging it in his arm. The mingled grief and outrage of the Queen herself as she witnessed his fall could not be greater than that of certain more historically minded moviegoers; however much written documentation there exists to say that he escaped unhurt, that the guns of the would-be assassin contained nothing but gunpowder, no piece of historical evidence proved strong enough to shield him from harm. Even though this unexpected revision of events did not quite manage to kill off Prince Albert, it certainly dealt an effective deathblow to my unthinking trust in period dramas. It was only afterwards, looking back, that I realized that in criticizing the film for inaccuracy I was entirely missing its point.
According to the sacred laws of plot development, which in any drama take precedence over both the laws of physics and the laws of God, there was no way Prince Albert could have dodged that bullet. The film needed a spectacular climax to come to a sudden and satisfying conclusion; otherwise it would have ended up inflicting decade after decade of Victoria’s happy marriage and lonely widowhood upon its long-suffering audience. It doesn’t take a great deal of foresight to know that The Ageing Victoria won’t be coming to theatres anytime soon, that the next rising star of the big screen will not be a stodgy, old-fashioned, reclusive queen. Her younger self, by contrast, comes across as independent, free-willed, and eager to take an active part in government; she carries just the right flavor of modernity, in short, to ensure the film’s success. This flavor of modernity is just as essential to the film as the redirection of the bullet; we need a character to get behind, to root for, and finding this person becomes infinitely easier if they are marked out from the beginning as modern.
Filmmakers are always eager to seize upon the character who appears to have a twenty-first century mind hidden behind their uncomfortable looking Victorian headgear; Elizabeth Bennett is defined in the trailer for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice as a woman with “modern views of love and marriage”, just as Alice Liddell is transformed in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland into a business entrepreneur and a confirmed skeptic of Victorian convention. Since these characters seem to be of our time, their confrontations with the Victorian era come to stand for our own; we share their frustration with its limitations, their rage at its injustices and dissatisfaction with its traditions. By the same token, if they somehow manage to break the oppressive bonds of Victorian society, we share in the spoils of their victory. The fundamental story of modernity, the triumph of the new over the old, is reenacted once more before our eyes. And its reenactment is by no means limited to the Victorian era; the traditions and conventions of 1950s are also far enough from modernity to make that decade the era of choice for many filmmakers. Those uniform suburban houses, with their white picket fences and immaculate lawns, whether they appear in films as innocuous as The Cat in the Hat and Edward Scissorhands or as somber as Revolutionary Road and The Hours, have become clear symbols of oppression. Like the looming, smog-stained buildings of Victorian institutions, they seem to be ready and waiting to be liberated by freethinking representatives of the modern world.
Nothing better affirms and sustains a culture than telling the story of its creation, and in a sense when we make period dramas we are doing exactly that. We tell ourselves about the rebellion and the bravery that went into the making of the modern world and we watch ourselves overthrowing the shackles of the past once more. Movies like The Boat That Rocked invite us to join the struggle of the rebels against the stodgy, 1950s style establishment and to revel in their eventual victory; in the case of that movie, a victory which makes our modern preference for rock and roll and pop music suddenly look courageous again. Period dramas are as much about today as they are about yesterday; their depictions of the past reaffirm the tastes and values of the present. With such an aim in mind, factual details like the destination of a bullet could not be more irrelevant.