Do It Right, Period

Posted by Pamela Jaye Smith on

The Duchess was such a disappointment.

Though the wigs were beyond fabulous and the sets stunningly gorgeous and aristocratically dignified, the characters were flat, their dialogue practically non-existent, and their emotions understandably absent given the dearth of any context for the story.

If you're going to do a period piece, do it up right.

People, this was the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Reason. The time of Revolutions. Of great philosophical, scientific, and social exploration, discovery, and change.

It was a time of long, complex sentences that displayed the acumen of the speaker, who was most likely schooled in Greek, Latin, and at least three other European languages as well as science, music, sports, and the arts, of which four arenas he or she would excel in at least one and be proficient in a couple of others, and those sentences then piqued the interest of the listeners, most of whom would also be concomitantly erudite and thus appreciative and engaged in the invigorating labyrinth of metaphors and the delicious use of references from classical times, just as Hermes delighted in bringing messages from Olympus to the far-flung heroes of the Trojan War, whilst all the time being solidly certain that any thoughts they had, any emotions that beat like wings of doves upon their breasts, be those breasts strong and manly or soft and feminine, and any actions they took were bound to resonate with an import well likely to change worlds both close to heart and across the bounding mains, where the empires of Europe were pulsating into New Worlds and Dark Continents, intent on bringing the Light of Truth and Wisdom, carried from glorious Greece and grand Rome and merely vouchsafed to them as guardians of the higher, nobler Truths upon which the gods built their earthly regnums.

Now, dear readers, that was a 223 word sentence and that's how they all talked back then. They understood it and they enjoyed it.

Sentences were long.

Paragraphs were long.

Monographs (early versions of blogs) were long.

It was a delicious romp through words, and people gobbled up those words with relish, chewed them up with delight, spit them out with enthusiasm, and sent them flying again with new feathers, off in new directions.

To be able to carry on a witty conversation was even more important than being good with a sword, until it came time for a duel or a war. To convince with words was a talent all were expected to develop. To be taciturn or laconic (Greco-Latin words for not having much to say), such as Ralph Fiennes' Duke of Devonshire character, was to be out of step with the times and to be looked down upon as not quite up to speed.

Not having read Amanda Foreman's book, "Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire" I do not know if Keira Knightly's G. was portrayed in those pages with the same sterility and muteness as in the film. If so, more's the pity.

Credited writer Jeffrey Hatcher also wrote Stage Beauty, another period piece, set in 17th century England. There the dialogue is much more realistic, quite clever, and the background of social mores and whimsical law-making is fully explored within the context of the plot. Danish co-author Anders Thomas Jenson wrote, among other award-winning scripts, the subtle and dramatic Brothers, set in current day Denmark and Afghanistan. Director Saul Dibb has co-writing credit on The Duchess and one other credited film about contemporary black street culture in London. Certainly Hatcher has proven himself capable of writing credible and entertaining period films, and Jenson capable of complex relationship drama. So what happened here?

The screenwriters of The Duchess apparently succumbed to one or both of the unfortunate writing dicta prevalent in Hollywood today.

1. Show, don't tell.
2. Dumb it down for the foreign audiences. And increasingly these days, for the American audience as well.

This movie breaks the Number One Rule of Making a Period Film = understand and convey the ESSENCE of the period.

The essence of this period was intellectualism, reason, innovation, exploration, and a burgeoning expression of individual rights - in the midst of a thriving slave trade, which contradiction no doubt fueled much of the push for rights.

Did you get any sense of any of that from The Duchess?

I think not.

The Duchess of Devonshire was a woman whose opinions helped shaped the fate of nations via her influence on such leaders as Charles Fox and Charles Grey.

Did you hear her say anything even remotely political, save for that one comment at a dinner party?

I did not.

This was a woman whose sense of style set fashion trends. There was one mention, about the plumes in her headdress. But did we see her affecting the dress of other women?

I saw naught.

And another thing - this whole business about propriety and formalities and the burden of the nobility. Perhaps the filmmakers got so caught up in portraying repression that they forgot to show us what was being repressed and why.

How unfortunate.

Our only glimpse of Ralph Fiennes's character's burden of nobility was one sentence at the end of the film. If only they had put it at the very beginning, instead of counting on his dyspeptic expression to telegraph (or text message?) his persona.

Charlotte Rampling's character of the Duchess's mother could have given us such great insights into how women were expected to behave; but we got nothing from her except tight-lipped scowls without knowing the reasons why beyond that over-worked onus of producing a male heir.

Disclosure - I saw the movie and discussed it afterwards with my friend and colleague Geffrey von Gerlach, production designer and novelist with experience in the Authenticity Department of the Beeb (the BBC, which brings us all those fabulous British dramas, comedies, historical series, etc.) so I have received extra schooling in this period.

In our workshop "Creating and Crafting the Special World of Your Story" Geffrey and I teach filmmakers how to apply practical and powerful story-telling tools such as authenticity, internal integrity, social context (standards of behaviour), historical perspective, tone and mood, symbols, language styles, sights and sounds, and more. All these are essential if you want to make an effective period piece. So using the example of The Duchess as what not to do, here's what we suggest you do.

Your Period Piece and How to Make it Marvelous

Whatever period you're writing about, do your research on the way people talked back then. Read the books. There are many writings going back thousands and thousands of years, so you can actually see how people talked in India in 2,000 B.C.E. or in Spain in 30 C.E. or Rhodesia in 1800. Even Quest for Fire kept to the supposed linguistic style of the times. "Ooof." "Ugh." "Errrr."

Do not dumb down smart dialogue

It only makes for a dumb and hollow film. People in other cultures are just as smart as people in your culture. Languages may differ, and of course there are differences in education and sophistication (exposure) but human intelligence is innate. People are more appreciative of that which lifts them up, makes them yearn, and lets them accomplish than of that which simply meets them at the bottom. The long-lasting hits in films or books are those which stretch us, which inspire us, which challenge and reward us. You can do that.

Give us context

You need to spend the first part of your story building the world so we know what the rules are for those characters. That's the whole point of those "fish out of water" stories where someone goes into a strange world - first you have to show us how strange it is.

The Bollywood romp Bride and Prejudice does this very well in its opening sequences, as does Jane Austen in her book, Pride and Prejudice.

Let us know what is beyond the pale: carrying your kid gloves in the wrong hand? sipping from the wrong glass at a formal dinner? failing to compliment your mistress when you meet at a soiree?

You must set up the right-and-wrong of your time and place so as to give tension to the story and show us the stakes against which the heroine must struggle.

Honor the zeitgeist of the times

Every era has a unique feeling, a sensibility, a look, a sound, a smell. If you can capture that, then you can take us on a marvelous journey back in time. Or forward if you are creating a yet-to-be world.

In a way, writers and filmmakers serve as psychopomps, those mythological guides to an other-world. We want you to dress us up, teach us the language, give us some local currency, and send us into an adventure in another time and place. To do that effectively, you must give us more than semaphores and half-hearted signals. You must create a rich, complex, believable world and you do that by doing your research, setting up the morality and social mores, letting your characters speak in the style of the times, and then step back out of the way as we relish the by-gone world you have brought back to life.

We will simply and eternally adore you for it, speaking in the vernacular of the times.

Or in today's terms, "We'll love it!"


Other Relevant Media & Research Suggestions
[thanks to Geffrey von Gerlach for many of these]

Films about this Age of Enlightenment and about some of the same people and issues which do a much much better job of portraying the times are:

Aristocrats - fictionalized mini-series account of actual characters of the time, including some who are also in The Duchess, such as Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland.

Amazing Grace - starring Ioan Griffudd as William Wilberforce, the man who got England to outlaw slavery.

Pride and Prejudice - the 1995 BBC Colin Firth version.

Sharpe's Rifles - BBC miniseries starring Sean Bean (Boromir in Fellowship of the Rings).

Tom Jones - rich and rowdy, blatant and bawdy.

Barry Lyndon - a Stanley Kubrick film, one of the first to use a new Kodak film stock that allowed the interior sets to be lit mainly by candles. Exquisitely beautiful.

Restoration - starring Robert Downey, Jr.

The Scarlett Pimpernel - 1982 British TV version starring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. Charming and smart at the same time.

The Duelists - Ridley Scott's 1977 film. Brooding and moody but it well captures the tenor of the times.


Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, Volumes 7-11.

Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.

Elizabeth Hand's novel The Affair of the Necklace about Marie Antoinette and the scandalous period sets the tone of the century perfectly.


Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal"

Oliver Goldsmith's "She Stoops to Conquer"

Art and Architecture

The influence of Greek art.

The manners of France.

The court fashions of France.

Paladian architecture.

Politics and Law

The independence of America.

English marital law: all the business about not seeing your children, etc.

Estate law and the passage of property - totally essential to the plotline in The Duchess, yet never explained.

The writings of Samuel Johnson. Think Jon Stewart, Noam Chomsky, Maureen Dowd, and Molly Ivins all rolled into one.

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