Heritage Film: Nation, Genre and Representation

Belén Vidal,
Heritage Film: Nation, Genre and Representation
London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-231-16203-6
$US20 (pb)
144 pp
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

Belén Vidal’s recent contribution to the Wallflower Short Cuts series, which introduce concepts in film studies, is a slim but virtuosic synthesis of the debates surrounding heritage cinema, from their origins in the British culture wars of the 1980s to the critical, generic and industrial diversification that characterizes the current terrain.

Anglo-European heritage cinema has been a focus of discussion in film scholarship and cultural studies for at least three decades now. Some of the heat has been diffused from these discussions as the category of heritage cinema has expanded well beyond its original designation of a type of realist British historical film or literary adaptation set in the verdant, picturesque British countryside and/or lovingly re-created drawing rooms of a Europe long past. The early cycle of films, which included Chariots of Fire (1981), A Passage to India (1984) and the burgeoning Merchant Ivory franchise, was derisively labeled ‘the Laura Ashley School of filmmaking’ by British director Alan Parker. Left-leaning critics were suspicious of their allegedly Thatcherite sensibilities and nostalgic rearward gaze. If the stakes seem lower now, this is partly because what we call ‘heritage’ has become both a staple and an extremely diversified product of transnational film culture. Scholarship now recognizes a catalogue of generic diversions including ‘post heritage’, ‘alternative heritage’, ‘anti’ and ‘revisionist’ heritage, ‘Gothic’, ‘meta’ and ‘baroque heritage’, among others.

Vidal is interested in these hybridizations and regenrifications and uses this volume to extend Eckart Voigts Virchow’s 2004 description of a “syncretic” category of global cinema, “syncretic in the sense that [heritage] fuse[s] supposedly incongruous genres into a new blend”.[1] For her, the characteristics of flexibility and mobility are central to a new working definition of the genre. As she writes in the Introduction:

It is my contention that the heritage film is a hybrid genre with porous borders, a genre that is becoming less consensual and more political through its staunch preference for emotional histories, and also more adventurous in its continuous incorporation of a popular historical iconography informed not only by literature or painting, but also by fashion, popular music and television. (4).

And yet we’re not entirely free from the question of Britishness and its circulation in international film markets, and far from resolved on the paradoxical politics of heritage style as the semiotic lens through which audiences encounter these (re)branded images of (most often European) national histories.

The first chapter works through the origins and the endurance of these questions. It’s a brilliant, taught account of the early debates, from Andrew Higson’s (1993) seminal and since-revised critique, which addressed heritage film style against the backdrop of Thatcherite neoliberalism, enterprise culture and the emergence of the heritage museum industry. Higson’s assessment quickly congealed into the critical orthodoxy, a view proposing that the nostalgic heritage gaze trades on historical authenticity and what Martin Hipsky (1994) called high cultural ‘circumambience’, coopting collective memory to suit a conservative political agenda while producing a lucrative transnational film export product – ‘Anglophil(m)ia’ – that profited from the cultural aspirations of university educated American audiences. In a memorable quote on the class appeal of Merchant Ivory adaptations, Hipsky suggested that educated audiences “want their increasingly expensive college educations to pay some cultural dividends” and thus seek entertainment that gratifies their sense of “cultural entitlement”.[2] This response to heritage was very much in thrall to Frederic Jameson’s critique of nostalgia in postmodern cultural production (1991). Vidal pays due diligence to these potent and in no way obsolete perspectives but also foregrounds the frictions between an ideological analysis and the liberal viewing pleasures of heritage. There is an abiding tension in the heritage gaze between the supposedly distanced admiration of heritage properties and the dramas of emotional repression that unfold inside them that aligns even first wave heritage cinema with the politics of melodrama. Vidal seems more sympathetic to the approach, which, in work by Richard Dyer, Pam Cook and Clare Monk, for example, highlights the genre’s hospitality to minority histories, its interrogations of national and nationalist mythologies, and more generally entertains the productive or progressive implications of a nostalgia gaze.

The heritage debates have also been haunted by judgments of taste and quality, and Vidal reminds us that the status of heritage cinema as the “bad object par excellence” in film studies has been underpinned by its association with nostalgia, the women’s film, but most importantly, with the aesthetics of the “middlebrow” (20-28). This is where hindsight enables her to make some very telling observations. Why, for example, she asks, are James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant, “independent filmmakers who more than any others [producing heritage cinema] constitute a recognizable ‘brand’”, yet to “become the object of a critical appraisal as fully-fledged auteurs”(28) despite their considerable oeuvre and distinctive style? Why, in other words, are asterism and heritage mutually exclusive? These provocations help to explain the exclusion of ‘art heritage’ and ‘pop heritage’ (Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway, for example) from the early debates. “It is not exaggerated to claim”, Vidal argues, “that the middlebrow remains the last frontier of film studies; the denigrated centre of British production isolated by the fetisisation of the ‘edges’”t (28). The same can be said, I would add, for much popular film criticism, where the reception of heritage is still very often steeped in an uninterrogated distaste for the middlebrow.

Because Heritage Cinema is a primer of sorts, fulfilling the function of the Short Cuts series to introduce topics across screen studies, it reviews a lot of literature in a small space. However, in each of the three sections of the book, Vidal provides an original, insightful and extremely well selected illustrative case study. In chapter one it is a tour de force analysis of Steven Frears’ The Queen (2006), which significantly extends work on the contemporary monarchy film. Although Vidal doesn’t cite her work, her reading’s interest in the conflicts between the monarch’s private and public lives has echoes of Lauren Berlant’s work on the emotional politics of the “intimate public sphere”.[3] The Queen reflects the enduring significance of a kind of self-reflective, baroque heritage in contemporary British visions of the nation and refracts many of the questions of nation, nostalgia and empire that emerged as key themes in the corset wars.

Although even the first cycle of films were actually British/American co-productions and an export genre with trans-Atlantic cultural as well as financial investments, heritage cinema has typically been treated as a staunchly British phenomenon. However, Vidal is interested in the international genealogies of the genre, which exceed – while they remain in some key ways defined by – its origins in the landscapes of British cultural production. She thus re-inserts the transnational into the critical history of heritage cinema in a manner that the initial debates foreclosed. In this spirit, Chapter Two is an ambitious investigation of the industrial and cultural internationalization of post-national European heritage that turns to the film Joyeux Noël (2005), a multi-national production that, for Vidal, reflects transnational investments in a shared, pan-European traumatic history.

Readers who are more interested in the gendered, affective and erotic dimensions of the heritage retrovision and their mediation in heritage aesthetics will enjoy the third and final chapter’s focus on women’s and feminist histories, melodrama, costume, recuperation and revisionism. These themes thrived in the critical response to the emergence of key post- and revisionist heritage interventions by arthouse feminist auteurs Sally Potter and Jane Campion in the late 90s. They are re-energized here by the fraught post-feminist genealogy Vidal constructs between this earlier moment and more recent films like Marie Antoinette (2006), The Duchess (2008) and The Young Victoria (2009). All of these works reflect an ambivalent post-feminist screen culture, yet the recent crop of films – high concept biopics that dramatize anxieties about femininity, power, celebrity and consumption – are, Vidal argues, “symptomatic of a shift from the retrieval of women’s histories and aesthetic experimentation of the 1990s post-heritage film to the commodification of feminism” (110). This final chapter, then, through a close analysis of the artist biopic, Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), reminds us of the salience of the heritage film for critics interested in the ‘double entanglement’ of post-feminist media culture. There are illuminating intersections here with the post-feminist media sensibilities of scholars like Angela McRobbie, Jane Arthurs, Rosalind Gill and Ann Brooks, few of whom have taken much notice of heritage cinema.

So in addition to its function as a manageable and useful primer, Heritage Film is a powerful reminder of how provocative the category of heritage film continues to be for scholars interested in genuinely interdisciplinary questions about screen culture – the answers to which necessarily consider the (inter)textual in relation to the industrial, the historical and the political, as well as the affective, taste-making and pleasurable aspects of film consumption.


[1] Eckart Voigts-Virchow, Introduction, Janespotting and Beyond: British Heritage Retrovisions Since the Mid-1990s (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004), 20.

[2] Martin A. Hipsky, “Anglophil(m)ia: Why Does America Watch Merchant-Ivory Movies?” Journal of Popular Film and Television 22 (1994): 103.

[3] See Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham: Duke UP, 1997).

About the Author

Dion Kagan

About the Author

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan works on film, sexuality and popular culture. He recently completed a PhD entitled ‘Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘post-crisis’ (c.1996-)’. He lectures and tutors in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University and is currently teaching Contemporary Issues in Sex and Sexuality at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University.View all posts by Dion Kagan →