Gender, Feminism and Sexuality in the Heritage Film

By Na Ma, Ohio University

Pride and Prejudice (2005), as one of the famous Heritage films, tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s five unmarried daughters after Mr. Bingley and his friend, Mr. Darcy have moved into their neighborhood. Bingley soon falls in love with the eldest daughter, Jane Bennet, while Darcy and the second-eldest daughter Elizabeth Bennet painstakingly get together after several dramas and clashes. The film, set in early 19th century, was shot in England over a fifteen-week period. It shows England’s most imposing mansions and landscapes, such as the Peak District National Park.
It seems that Pride and Prejudice (2005) emphasizes realism, romanticism and family. Sarah Ailwood opined that the film is “an essentially Romantic interpretation of Austen’s novel,” because of Wright’s attention to “position Elizabeth and Darcy as Romantic figures” (35). But actually the film creates a new mixed genre by associating traditional traits of the heritage film with gender issues such as the plight of the poor, downtrodden women, including Elizabeth Burnett and her friend Charlotte Lucas.

Most people consider the Heritage film as nostalgic and conservative. Most Heritage films may start off with anonymous figures of a bourgeois, rich man and end with his happy marriage with a poor woman. But the Heritage film should be viewed in a broader, more complex way. In particular, the literature adaptations from E.M.Forster and Jane Austen should show a more liberal normative text to illustrate a reasonably authentic liberal notion expressed within the classic English novels. Some prudent spectators may point out that most Heritage films have a typical scene in which two men stand closely and talk to each other, such as Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, or two women sleep in the same bed, such as Elizabeth Brunette and Jane Burnett. We can’t say these are gay or lesbian subplots in the Heritage Film, but at least it tells us that a full picture of the Heritage film’s appeal, politics, and personal value for audiences should include more focus on social and political identities such as gender, feminism and sexuality.


Some leftist-liberal critics see the film as carrying a conservative worldview, recalling Britain’s “glorious past” (Stigsdotter 172-73), more than they see it dealing with contemporary social issues. They think the purpose of Heritage film is to bring Britain’s splendid landscape, glorious history and reserve manner, which they are always proud of, to the audience. Thus the Heritage film can convey a message about Britain’s conservative but proud culture.

There are some interesting discussions about middle-upper class gentlemen’s conservative manner in Pride and Prejudice (2005).

In a scene in which Elizabeth first visits Darcy’s house in Netherfield to see her ill sister Jane, she is a little surprised by Darcy’s politeness. Darcy stands up to greet her after she walks into the room while Caroline sits frozen in her position and laughs at the mud clinging to her skirt. People who support the Heritage film as conservative genre think Darcy is polite and shows his guests good manners. But others could doubt this theme because of Caroline’s arrogance and rudeness. They may think it is a clue about Caroline’s feminism: women are more arrogant than men. In addition, Elizabeth’s lack of concern about the mud on her skirt indicates her ignorance and challenges the manners, which were customary among Britain’s upper class women.

In another scene, Darcy tries to reveal his heart to Elizabeth in Charlotte Lucas’s house. There is no sound at all and the background is very quiet. Darcy tries to say something, seemingly telling Elizabeth he loves her, but somehow he gives up because of pride or reserve or being interrupted by Lydia’s sudden return. He seems nervous and struggles with his feelings for a while. This is fully shown in a short scene, especially when Charlotte asks Elizabeth, “What you have done to poor Mr. Darcy?” which indicates Mr. Darcy’s embarrassing self-struggle. Elizabeth’s answer, “I’ve no idea,” shows her confusion about Darcy’s abrupt visit and incomprehension of Darcy’s struggle. The quietness allows the audience to consider Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s feelings and focus on the subtleness in their relationship. Darcy’s self-struggle may lead the audience to think he is a gentleman, too conservative to express his love. Others, however, may think this is a sign that Elizabeth’s confidence has surpassed Mr. Darcy’s pride. The audience can understand this is a clue about Austen’s feminist thinking.


In the scene in Pride and Prejudice (2005 in which Elizabeth stands on a great mountain with her dress flying in the air shows her independent personality. Catherine Stewart-Beer of Oxford Brookes University calls Elizabeth’s presence on the Derbyshire cliff a “stunning, magical evocation of Wright’s strong stylistic brand of Postmodern Romanticism” (Stewart-Beer 7). The grand and open scene tells the audience that her mind is free, not partial, and that she is seeing things as a whole.

The mise-en-scène of architecture, painting, and landscape usually relies on actions taking place in a stately aristocratic home. Therefore, the film’s displacement of mise-en-scènes could parallel the displacement of conventional gender identifications. (Landy 80)

John Hill notes that in A Room with a View (1986), the narrative explores a progressive gender politics when Lucy complains that her lover compares her to paintings. She is shot at mid-distance, surrounded by such objects (Hill 1999, 89). Hill’s analysis of how the objects can be viewed as spectacle reinforces a generalized conservative nostalgia, but fails to explain why Lucy, a proto-feminist narrative agent, is photographed as part of this spectacle. In A Room with a View (1986), the reconfiguration of maternity discloses the film’s historical capital based on repetitions of requisite difference (Landy 81) and meets contemporary challenges to gender and sexuality.

Despite this “mixed political agenda” in Sense and Sensibility (1995), Troost believes that the film’s faithfulness to the traditional heritage film genre is evident through its use of locations, costumes, and attention to details, all of which also emphasize class and status (Troost 2007, 83). Often intersecting with class, gender has been considered as another major theme in this film. Penny Gay observes that Elinor’s early dialogue with Edward about “feel[ing] idle and useless… [with] no hope whatsoever of any occupation” reflects Thompson’s background as a “middle class, Cambridge-educated feminist.”(Gay 2003, 92–93). Gay and Julianne Pidduck comment that gender differences are expressed by showing the female characters indoors, while their male counterparts are depicted outside confidently moving throughout the countryside (Gay 2003, 93; Pidduck 2000, 123).


In the 1970s and 1980s, with increasing human rights movements and burgeoning gay freedom, a brilliant and unbiased filmmaker such as James Ivory began to took full advantage of the production freedom emerged during the same period.

Although A Room With A
View received warm critical and public reaction, E.M. Forster was still a little disappointed by
readers’ ignorance of the theme of homosexual awakening. It was not until the release of the famous version of A Room With A
View (1985) by Ivory that the public began to recognize its homosexual
themes. There is a pioneering scene that faithfully renders Forster’s original novel and meticulously captures the memorable cinematic imagery. On the big screen the extended sequence at “the Sacred Lake” is vividly homoerotic, featuring full-frontal male nudity (LaFontaine 15) by Julian Sands, Rupert Graves, and Simon Callow.

Forster’s novel Maurice talks more boldly about gay love. It gradually assumed cult status in the gay community and moved into mainstream consciousness in 1987 with the appearance of the second of Ivory’s three adaptations from Forster’s novels– Maurice (1987)  (LaFontaine 13). To remain relevant and attract more contemporary audiences, later Heritage films focus on more personal struggles, social position and the rights of women, gay men and lesbians. Maurice (1987) starring James Wilby, Rupert Graves, and Hugh Grant, is one of the first mainstream films describing an openly gay love story with a happy ending. The film also notably displays its sexual candor by bravely using the scenes of lingering full-mouth kissing and male frontal nudity.

In a conjoining scene of maternal behavior and death, Shadowlands (1993) rewrites the history of the homosocial world of Oxford, as a critique of traditional representations of British identity.

Some people may think there are lesbian subplots in Howard End (1992). In the start of the film, the Heroine Margaret Schlegel quickly builds a very close friendship with Ruth Wilcox, whom she had briefly met before. The two were travelling abroad with their families. Over the course of the next few months, the two women become so close, and Ruth eventually regards Margaret as a sincerely spirit and soul mate. After learning the lease on the Schlegels’ London house is due to expire, and knowing she will die soon, Ruth gives Howards End to Margaret in a handwritten will. This causes great shock to the Wilcoxes, who refuse to accept the truth that Ruth have bequeath her home to a relative stranger. Most people think the true reason that Ruth gives away her house is that she falls in love with Margaret.

Also, it seems that Jane Austen somehow wants to suggest a homosexual relationship between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley in the film Pride and Prejudice (2005). The two have a so good relationship that they always appear in the film together and talk so close. It is Mr. Darcy who separates Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet first. These subplots are true. A further brave or seemingly ridiculous guess about the reason why Mr. Darcy propose Elizabeth, is only because Mr. Darcy feel sad after Mr. Bingley falls in love with Jane and marry Jane’s sister Elizabeth is just an excuse to release his jealousy and anger to Mr. Binley or a good way to keep staying close with Mr. Bingley. These subplots unfold in a relatively discreet fashion, but this is not new to Austen readers. As Woolf suggestively put it:

Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial” (139-140)


Feminist scholars have argued that far from constructing a passive, consumerist gaze (Higson 1993, 21), the focus of Heritage film on women’s life stories constructs an identifying female spectator (Monk 1996, 13).

Feminism does not arise in a halcyon time in Britain. In 1909 the Liberal government was faced with a serious constitutional crisis over the passing of David Lloyd George’s budget. Suffragism arose and there were far more significant social movements for votes for women. An ever-increasing polarization in Ireland between nationalists and unionists also appeared. These were all significant political and social features (Schama 2006, 41) in the constitutional crisis period, which is better seen as one of transition and implies all the uncertainties.

There is a scene in Pride and Prejudice (2005) in which Elizabeth walks to Netherfield to see her sister. The road must be very muddy and filled with obstacles such as clay and puddles. However, the film displays a very impressive picture from a panoramic view as Elizabeth walks along a long but smooth plain. At the left side of the film she passes a large tree and strides toward the right. This movement forms a strong contrast between the large tree and the small figure of Elizabeth, showing the heroine’s brave and independent personality. It highlights Elizabeth’s elegant image walking alone, but beautiful.

A still more conventional version of femininity in the guise of maternal prescience, if not omnipotence, underlies the film Shadowlands (1993). The film returns to the past to recreate the relationship between C. S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), the American woman Lewis married. An American, a Jew, communist, atheist, and divorced woman, Gresham’s fatal cancer momentarily shatters the little community, forcing a crisis of masculinity and raising the specter of the “dreaded” feminine maternal as the bringer of death. Debra Winger’s role is reminiscent of the operatic diva’s pain and suffering. Increasingly, femininity as excess assumes center stage in the melodrama in a variation on Deleuze’s version of the masochistic aesthetic. The more Joy suffers, the more dominant she becomes over Lewis. Her insistence on “real” (Landy 81) experience over books signals the film’s mistrust of intellectualism identified with male masculinity.

The reappearance of femininity in its maternal and benign nurturing form is also evident in the 1993 film The Remains of the Day. The film’s reconstruction of the pre-World War II era invokes femininity in its unsettling of a monocular view of patriarchal blindness. Emma Thompson’s role as Miss Kenton shifts the onus of historical investigation and critically examines class, property. She becomes the locus of the film’s focus, the bridge between history and femininity. The character of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) cannot be considered apart from the portrait of Lord Darlington (James Fox) and the two masculine figures are better understood through the maternal role of Miss Kenton. Stevens’ patriarchal obsession centers on his identification with the master of the house, and Stevens’ refusal to acknowledge Miss Kenton’s common sense “wisdom” signals his impotence and paralysis (Landy 72). What does his denial of her common sense signify in the film’s mapping of history? Miss Kenton’s prescience and rectitude — her predicting Stevens’ father’s demise, her chastising of Stevens’ cowardly refusal to defend the Jewish serving girls, and her exposure of his secretive reading habits — are signs of a maternal role to which she finally and fully commits herself.

The maternal figure of women is again positioned as the guarantor of identity, authenticity, and wholeness, an antidote to nationalism, racism, and violence (Landy 85). The common sense nurturing wisdom of femininity is inextricably and reductively tied to the melodramatic and sentimental notions of heterosexual romance.

More examples can be seen the classical film Pride and Prejudice (2005). When Elizabeth hears comments that she is barely tolerable and not beautiful enough to attract Darcy to dance with her, she feels humiliated and hurt, and begins to develop her first prejudice against Darcy: that he is arrogant and supercilious. Elizabeth’s subtle feeling towards Darcy occurs when Darcy begins to show his changing attitude and behavior. When Elizabeth feels Darcy’s shaky hand and sees Darcy’s clenched fists, she seems shocked at his nervousness and sexual frustration. The camera briefly frames Darcy’s embarrassment with noticeable close-ups of his tight fists. The subtle turmoil disappears and turns to dislike when George Wickham tells Elizabeth that Darcy has separated Wickham and his sister Georgiana Darcy because Darcy dislikes his “too low status.” When Darcy tries to explain that he has “no talent of conversing easily with people he has never met before” and because of that he rejected a dance with Elizabeth at the first ball, she shows no sympathy and suggests Darcy should practice more, indicating her ignorance of Darcy’s attempt to be friendly.

In The Remains of the Day (1933), Miss Kenton seeks to make Stevens acknowledge: “Can it be that our Mr. Stevens is flesh and blood after all?”

Carole Dole wrote that Thompson’s version of Elinor in Sense and Sensibility (1995) “has a surprising anti-feminist element to it “(55–56), as she appears more dependent on men than the original character; the film presents her as repressed, resulting in her emotional breakdown with Edward. Linda Troost thinks that Lee’s production prominently features “radical feminist and economic issues” while “paradoxically endorsing the conservative concept of marriage as a woman’s goal in life” (82–83). Nora Stovel observes that Thompson “emphasizes Austen’s feminist satire on Regency gender economics,” (2011) drawing attention not only to the financial plight of the Dashwoods but also to eighteenth century women in general.

Sexual Awakening

Whether functioning as melodrama, comedy, parody, or satire, the Heritage film’s uses of music, architecture, painting, choreography, and landscape in conjunction with its portrayal of femininity violates expectations of narrative continuity, calling attention to “non-diegetic elements” (Landy 79) that are intimately connected to their investments in sexual and gender coding.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice (2005), when Elizabeth’s wandering eyes stare at the voluptuous nude bodies painted on the entrance hall ceiling at Pemberley, her hate of Darcy changes into an admiration for him. As Paquet-Deyris points out, the tight shot of Elizabeth framed in the doorway peeking at Georgiana at the piano and then at Darcy tenderly embracing his sister, is the first actual stage of her “sensuous conversion” (5).

Higson tempers the dismissive undertones of this critique in the Heritage film with the alternative voices – mostly feminist – that uphold the pleasures of masquerade and pastiche (2003) afforded by period drama, which suggest fluid sexual identities and the empowerment of viewpoints marginalized from history.

The heroine Lucy in A Room With A View (1986) is portrayed as a rebellious woman. Lucy’s silence, like her cross-dressing, and like the film itself, promises difference but recycles a familiar form of maternal femininity. Her struggle to express her emotions and sexuality in a constrained environment and courage in “bringing her inner self out into the open public” (LaFontaine 14), resonates strongly with most women and has made the film enduringly popular in the tradition of works such as the film Pride and Prejudice (2005).

The proffered conceptions of femininity exceed conventional notions of essentialism relating to gender difference, addressing issues of exclusion and belonging, order and disorder. Femininity as historical capital is circulated through the films as they confront and name existing forms of representation and identity (Landy 86). The sexualization of history and its ties to femininity was an ostensible effort to recover the national past in forms of representation.

During the Thatcher period with a sense of conservative culture, most women believed they could have sex after they were married or thought sex can lead to engagement or marriage in Britain society. At the start of the film Howards End (1992), the younger sister, Helen Schlegel has sex with the younger Wilcox son, Paul and is unthinkingly engaged to him. The next day Paul thinks their previous sex was a casual thing and that the engagement is a mistake and breaks it off. However Helen has written to her older sister, Margaret Schlegel, who already has informed the rest of the family about the engagement.. As a result, Aunt Juley, without the awareness that the engagement had been broken off, arrives at Howards End the next day and informs the Wilcoxes about the engagement. The break-off of the engagement is actually not by mutual consent. The audience may see Helen’s subtle sadness and disappointment when Paul regrets the engagement the next day. Helen tries to be proud and strong and pretend to sincerely agree with Paul that sex is just for fun.


The Heritage film is very nostalgic and selective in its presentation of the past.  Many original Heritage films, such as Howards End (1992), are literary adaptations from classic English novels featuring upper-class protagonists occupying bountiful country estates. Heritage films sometimes are even narrowly defined as “middle-class visions of the past and nostalgic reconstructions of an imperialist and upper-class Britain” (Higson 1993, 21).

Heritage film also can be seen as displaying considerable ambivalence over relationships among class, gender and Englishness. This ambivalence is demonstrated in the tension between the mise-en-scènes depicting a rural, upper-middle-class Englishness and the narratives questioning and undermining the homogenous identity (Higson 2003, 200). Heritage is not historical in the sense of ‘seek[ing] knowledge about the past’; instead it exhibits a ‘modern-day use of elements of the past’ that projects ‘a shared cultural memory’ and an ‘imaginary identity’, which is utopian and ‘prone to be abused for nationalist or ethnocentrist purposes’ (Voigts-Virchow, 124). Heritage privileges ‘diachronic’ cultural memory, in which a ‘desirable past’ is preserved; and it is also ‘metonymic’ in that ‘only part of a given space is loaded with the defining features of a community’s heritage’ (Voigts-Virchow, 124).

National identity is not about a people’s citizenship status. Rather, it can be seen as a person’s identity or feeling of belonging to one country or to one nation, a sense that one can share with a group of people that has the same religion or culture. It is not a thing we are born with, but is formed and transformed within and in relation to representation. Yoonmi Lee sees national identity in psychological terms as “an awareness of difference” and “a feeling and recognition of ‘we’ and ‘they'”. (29)

In the Heritage film, it is the scenes and plots that tells the audience what it means to be “English” because of the way “Englishness” has come to be represented, as a set of meanings, by English national culture. Scholar Stuart Hall argues that a nation is not only a political entity but also “a system of cultural representation.” (292)


The Heritage film can be ideological in providing an escape from the present – particularly in the divided Thatcherism social and political climate of 1980s Britain, because of the meticulous attention to period details and the splendid scenes of the English landscape in the films. The notion of original ‘heritage’ excludes social and cultural issues of the present (Hall 1988, 36) and creates mythical visions of the past.

At the end of Heritage Film Audiences: Period Film Audiences and Contemporary Films in the UK, Claire Monk concludes that Heritage films can have multiple overlapping themes. Monk defines Heritage film as a “reactionary” genre (175), “a diversity of ideological-aesthetic viewing positions–including positions less conservative, more progressive and more iconoclastic” (176).

From a feminist and pro-GLBT[1] position other than conservative reputation, Heritage film should be strongly progressive in its gender and sexual politics. There is a scene in Pride and Prejudice (2005) in which Darcy attempts to propose in the rain. The very tense background sound indicates that the characters’ emotions are very strong: Darcy’s feelings towards Elizabeth after struggling for so long while Elizabeth has hateful feelings towards Darcy after learning that it was Darcy who separated her sister Jane and Bingley. Darcy confesses that he loves Elizabeth and asks to be accepted, but Elizabeth rejects his offer and viciously replies that he is the last man in the world she would want to marry.

Higson, in his study on Howards End (1992) expresses a concern that the director and producer in this film have undermined that liberalism and made a conservative sensibility that becomes predominant by constructing a stylistic mode by focusing on the mise-en-scène (2011, 19). To put it simply, conservatism in the Heritage film can co-exist with liberal identities, in order to represent properly British identity. However, as Stuart Hall points out in The Question of Cultural Identity that difference among its members can be in terms of class, gender or race, a national culture that seeks to “unify them into one cultural identity, to represent them all as belonging to the same great national family”(296).

Other genre films such as Orlando (1992), The Piano (1993), Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), and The Duchess (2008) became popular because they give gender politics priority in their relevant themes. They focus on strong and complex female characters instead of only on opulent male characters residing in country estates.


History is incorporated in Heritage films in several ways.  It employs visual qualities, especially costumes, language and dialogue, and focuses on historical icons.  They relate not only to the past, but also to the present.  That is what engages the audience and ties the past to the present.

The Heritage Film can be viewed as very conservative because a number of the period films were celebrated in the conservative press in contrast with other British productions set in the present dealing with social problems. In English Heritage, English Cinema, Higson maps the ‘heritage’ as a politically conservative notion by successive 1980s British Conservative Governments under the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher (211). Belén Vidal has pointed out “inherently conservative (19)” as one of the main characteristics for heritage films.

Contemporary British cinema’s affinity with history reveals profound antagonisms between sexuality themes describing national identity and history themes reexamining and rewriting the national past. The representations, themes and perspectives present in Heritage films are diverse but mostly are romance narratives less necessarily conservative. It provides a critique of the oppressive restrictions of British society and the superiority, arrogance, and controlled manner of the ruling classes. Victorian women are invoked in negative opposition to ‘liberated’ Edwardian femininity (McCormack 1984, 12–13). Characters are not only legal citizens of a nation, but participants in the “idea” of national culture.

Decorousness, I argue, is exhibited in more than mise-en-scène. It influences the performances of principal characters, especially gender and racial values, which seem incorporated as period features in much the same way as the set and costumes. Furthermore, I suggest that the decorous aesthetic emerges most clearly when these elements of the film are compared with the novel on which it is based.


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[1] GLBT: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender