Period Pieces

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I watched two movies rented on iTunes this weekend and though they couldn’t be more different from one another, I couldn’t help but notice how much they had in common. Changeling is the the true story story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), searching for her missing son Walter. Set in 1928 Los Angeles, at a period when the police force was overtly corrupt and much criticized by the press for abuse of power and routine criminal activity. One day Christine is told by the police Captain that her son has been found alive and that they have organized a reunion. The press is invited to the event, as police Chief James E. Davis is desperate for positive coverage. The real trouble begins as soon as Christine sees the boy. She knows he’s not her son and says so to Captain Jones, head of the department’s Juvenile Division, but he insists she is mistaken, that she isn’t thinking straight, that specialists have been consulted to verify the boy’s identity, and that she must take him home “on a trial basis” until she regains her senses. But first she is told to pose with the boy and smile for the cameras. And she does.

Seeing Angelina Jolie as a meek woman who defers to people even when she knows they are lying to her seemed completely unbelievable. But soon Christine insists on making her voice heard as she (correctly) fears that now that she has been saddled with this other boy, all searches for he son have been stopped. When she stubbornly insists that her son is still missing, the police Captain accuses her of being an unfit mother and worse, a woman seeking independence. On the basis that Christine “refuses to recognize her own son” he claims she is mentally unbalanced and has her immediately commited to the psychiatric hospital. That is just the beginning of the story, but I think I have revealed enough for now.

Set at the end of the eighteenth century, The Duchess is a historical costume drama based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, better known as the Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley). The film starts with the marriage arrangement made between Georgina’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) and the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), who makes it immediately clear the main thing he expects out of the marriage is for Georgiana to produce a male heir as soon as possible. As the “it” girl of her time, she captivated the public with her beauty, charm and wit, and her fashion sense was the standard which all the ladies of her time sought to emulate. Everyone seems captivated by her except for her husband who has constant dalliances and doesn’t show any signs of affection to Georgiana. When she gets pregnant for the first time, she is hopeful that producing a male heir might bring them closer together but when her baby turns out to be a girl, the Duke is angry with her and accuses her of not being able to deliver an heir, as per the original agreement.

One day, Georgiana befriends Lady Bess Foster and a love triangle soon ensues when her husband lays his claim on her. Georgiana takes this as her cue to pursue an affair with Earl Grey, future Prime Minister, but is soon confronted by her husband who of course is violently opposed to her indiscretions with the excuse that he will not tolerate being ridiculed as a cuckold. The movie is lush and an absolute pleasure for the eyes, but it was impossible not to feel frustrated throughout.

So, the answers might seem obvious, but what did these movies have in common? Both movies were based on real people and events. Both movies were gorgeous period pieces. Both heroines have a strong independent streak and are vilified for not being the submissive, meek little creatures they are expected to be. Both heroines have unrealistic, even cruel expectations placed on them. Both heroines are oppressed by male figures of authority, at times when figures of authority were inevitably men. But guess what? Nowadays, female figures of authority are also more than capable of power tripping, but they get to do while pretending they really care and that really, they just want to be your friend*. And beyond that I’m just getting a little bit tired of Hollywood’s way of turning everyone into a one-dimensional caricature.

*Yes, I’m thinking of someone I had the pleasure of working for.

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