European historical dramas often abound with corsets, curls and class clashes. But in 2018, a handful of them were not only biopics but also films that unabashedly tackled LGBTQ story lines.
In “Mary Queen of Scots,” Saoirse Ronan plays the titular 16th-century queen who aims to reclaim the throne of England from Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). That task is exacerbated by her usurping second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), whose trysts with her confidant David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Cordova) have fatal consequences.
Then there’s “The Favourite,” in which Olivia Colman portrays Queen Anne of Great Britain during her early 18th-century reign. Between her royal appearances and decisionmaking duties, she sneaks off to rendezvous with Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). That’s interrupted by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). A sensual triangle of lust, love and power ensues.
In “The Happy Prince,” Rupert Everett writes, directs and stars in a portrait of author Oscar Wilde as he looks back on his last few years in exile after being imprisoned in 1895 for “gross indecency.” These vignettes recount the love triangle among Wilde, literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and fellow author Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan).
And in “Colette,” Keira Knightley embodies Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the early 20th-century author of the popular Claudine novels. Her sexual self-discovery — via a fling with an American heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson) and a long-term relationship with gender-nonconforming artist Mathilde de Morny, or Missy (Denise Gough) — parallels her self-empowered battle to seize authorship from her husband (Dominic West).
Although such a cinematic combination is not necessarily new — James Ivory’s 1987 portrait of Maurice Hall, Derek Jarman’s 1991 adaptation of “Edward II” and Tom Hooper’s 2015 biopic “The Danish Girl” each traversed this territory — it’s still relatively rare in the period drama genre.
It’s not that this influx is a revision of history, or a layering of the facts with liberal propaganda. Each of these movies’ scripts relied heavily on the actual texts of the time, or biographies that were written based on them.
“The primary sources are key,” said “Favourite” co-screenwriter Deborah Davis. “Sarah and Anne wrote to each other throughout their lives, and a lot of these letters survived. Anne’s letters to Sarah can definitely be described as love letters.”
Wash Westmoreland, co-writer and director of “Colette,” supposed that LGBTQ representation in period films might have remained an anomaly because the genre began with adaptations of British literature, which didn’t include many queer narratives.
Plus, when it comes to who’s been in charge of preserving history, “the white, upper-class, straight milieu has been the norm, so that’s the lens we’ve seen,” he added.
“Now, there’s a greater interest in the stories of those who aren’t on the cover of history books, including those who were silenced.”
Although 2018 also included LGBTQ representations in contemporary-set films, it’s notable that all four of the aforementioned biopics were released within a single year.
“People presume that progress is linear, that we are more tolerant and liberal now than we might have been 450 years ago, but that’s absolutely not the case,” said “Mary Queen of Scots” director Josie Rourke.
“In Mary’s era, the French king was openly gay on Sundays and had weekly parties. Shakespeare’s sonnets, some of the greatest love poetry ever written, some think were addressed to a man. And homosexuality — or, rather, sodomy — wasn’t criminalized for ages in England until the Victorian era.”
“The fact that ‘Mary Queen of Scots,’ ‘The Favourite,’ ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘Colette’ all feature LGBTQ characters this season demonstrates the reality that LGBTQ people have existed throughout history,” Jeremy Blacklow, GLAAD’s director of entertainment media, said in a prepared statement. “And, just as importantly, that modern audiences want to watch these stories on the big screen.”