Heritage film

Heritage film is a critical term as opposed to a film genre label used by the film industry or filmmakers themselves. It initially referred to a cluster or cycle of late 20th-century British films that were argued to depict the England of the pre-World War II decades and past centuries in a nostalgic fashion. However, this original polemic use has broadened out, and the term is now also used more loosely to refer to period films with high-quality visual production values, including those produced in France, other European countries and beyond.

Many – but not all – 'heritage films' were adapted from classic literature, including Shakespeare plays and Jane Austen novels. For its critics on the political Left, however, the 'heritage film' was defined more centrally by:

The 'heritage film' has been criticised from a socialist perspective for its romanticised portrayal of the past, its emphasis on the bourgeoisie or aristocracy rather than working class, and its fascination with luxurious settings, clothing, and lifestyles. Its critics argued that the films reduced the past to a lavish consumer experience, presenting it as spectacle rather than offering audiences historical or critical understanding. This argument was strongly coloured by the wider, politicised and polarised, debates around British film, culture and society taking place in the Thatcher era, including similar critiques of the heritage industry itself, vehement opposition to Thatcherism among many British filmmakers and other prominent cultural figures, and counter-attacks on ‘anti-Thatcher’ films (almost always, by contrast, set in present-day Britain) by Thatcher’s supporters in the British media.

The films typically depicted Britain at a time where it was still a strong leader on the world stage. However, they also provide a critique of the oppressive restrictions of British society and the superiority, arrogance, and controlled manner of the ruling classes during the period of the British Empire. Other critics point out that the representations, themes and perspectives presented in 'heritage films' are varied, not homogeneous, and many of them are romance narratives, suggesting that the pleasures they offer to audiences are more diverse – and less necessarily 'conservative' – than those assumed by their original critics.

A further important strand in the critical debate around 'heritage films' argues – from a feminist and pro-LGBT position – that, in contrast with their 'conservative' reputation, many of the films are strongly progressive in their gender and sexual politics. Many of the best-loved 'heritage films' focus on strong and complex female characters (more than many other popular film genres), and some focus directly on the personal struggles, social position and rights of women, gay men and lesbians in ways that remain relevant and deeply moving to their contemporary audiences. In short, although the 'heritage film' became popular by providing an escape from the present – particularly in the divided social and political climate of 1980s Britain – the full picture of the films' appeal, politics, and personal value for their audiences is more complex.

Not all British films made since 1980 and set in the historic past are 'heritage films'. The 'heritage film' can be distinguished from period films that take a more self-conscious, less naturalistic, even anachronistic approach to screening narratives set in the past (the 'post-heritage film'); and from those set in more recent decades (usually 1940s onwards) that focus on characters from ordinary or working class social backgrounds, biographical subjects biopics and/or popular culture (the 'retro film' or 'alternative heritage film').



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