The concept of “heritage cinema” is now firmly established as an influential, as well as much “debated and contested” critical framework for the discussion of period or historical representation in film, most prominently with reference to British heritage and “post-heritage” film successes since the 1980s, but also to comparable examples from Europe, North America and beyond.
These successes have ranged from Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Maurice, Howards End and The Remains of the Day, via Jane Austen adaptations such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility to post-heritage adaptations such as Sally Potter’s Orlando.
The term heritage was first used by Charles Barr (47) to describe patriotic wartime films like This England, Kipps, The Young Mr. Pitt and Henry V. It describes, he says, “a genre of filim which reinvents and reproduces, and in some cases simpy invents, a national heritage for the screen.”. Period dramas appeared spradically in the ‘60s: Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), the BBC’s Forsyte Saga (1967), Women in Love (1969), The Go-Between (1970), but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the genre began to blossom. The Oscar triumphs of Chariots of Fire (1981) and A Room With a View (85), along with acclaim for Brideshead and The Jewel in the Crown (1984), coincided with the newly minted (and overtly propagandist) heritage consciousness of the ultraconservative Thatcher era. The National Heritage Acts of 1980 and 1983 institutionalized the preservation and exhibiting of stately homes, monuments and other venerated historical buildings, sanctioning a touristic agenda: Chatsworth House, Castle Howard (both Bridesheads), Wilbury Park (Maurice, 1987), Carlton Towers (A Handful of Dust, 1988), and Stokesay Court (Atonement, 2007).
However, the heritage film critique emerged in the late ‘80s, when the neo-Conservatism of the Thatcher era was in decline. The debate erupted in 1991, when Cairns Craig, writing in Sight & Sound, scorned the sumptuous...