A Short History Of The Period Drama, Part Three: TEAR UP THE SCRIPT (or, The Present Day)
Long before the superhero movie took the words “gritty reboot” and revolutionised a genre, period drama was working quietly away in the background doing exactly the same thing.
As the 90s gave way to a new century, so Merchant Ivory was giving way to another, darker approach. The innocence and idyll of A Room With A View couldn’t survive the rise of the internet and the cynicism of a post-9/11 world; the British pastiche was dead, and a new kind of uber-realism rushed in to take its place.
Within the first twelve months of the new century Ridley Scott’s Gladiator set a radical new standard for the costume drama. A more drastic break from Merchant Ivory could not be imagined – out with classic British landscapes and in with the dust and sun of the ancient world; out with refined repression and in with murder, revenge, and even incest. This return to the ancients appeared apropos of very little; the era hadn’t enjoyed cinematic popularity since Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus in the 60s, and there’d been little to indicate that the sword and sandal epic would return with such (appropriate) avengeance. With a speedy journey from development to production – David Franzoni’s first draft was completed in ’98 and production began in January ’99 – the film and its incredible effect on the period drama pretty much came out of nowhere.
Despite a rocky production (Russell Crowe tried to rewrite the script every single day), it heralded a tremendous turning point; not only did it rekindle interest in the historical epic, it legitimised this new approach to period drama, gaining the Academy stamp of approval with five Oscars and pushing the genre out of the cosy British industry and into modern Hollywood.