Stanley Kubrick’s well known obsession with authenticity is exemplified in our season opener Barry Lyndon.  It set WFS Vice President Johnny Crawford thinking about the ephemeral concept of ‘authenticity’ in other  period films. How can filmmakers depict a setting lost to history in a way that feels authentic?

Can a period piece ever be truly ‘authentic’?

Wellington Film Society’s opening film of 2024, Barry Lyndon, is a masterpiece of period filmmaking. Using (mostly) lighting that would have been available in the mid-18th Century to evoke paintings from that period (especially those of William Hogarth), it has been praised for its ‘authenticity’. Of course, the word ‘authenticity’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting when Stanley Kubrick needed NASA lenses to evoke the feeling of Europe a century before the invention of the camera. But one of the reasons Barry Lyndon works so well is that it feels historically accurate, even if we can never really know what the period genuinely looked, sounded and smelled like. This feeling is one that filmmakers frequently strive to replicate.

If you asked a non-historian to picture 18th Century Europe, the image in their mind’s eye would likely be informed by paintings like Hogarth’s and films like Kubrick’s. The closer a depiction is to that image, the more authentic it feels. For ancient Rome, that image might come from Gladiator, for the middle-ages Braveheart. The further we are from a historical event in time, space and familiarity, the more distorted that image is going to be and the more reliant we will be on depictions in art. As a young child, I assumed that everything was black and white in the early 20th Century because my understanding of that time came from old films.

A great example of this can be seen in the way Steven Spielberg directed Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln. We have reasonably reliable historical evidence that Abraham Lincoln spoke in a high-pitched and reedy voice but his status in the American pantheon makes many people imagine him speaking in a much deeper tone. For many viewers, seeing Day Lewis portray the man as he was made them wish they’d gotten the legend instead (I’m sympathetic to this view, if only because I found the film to be a relatively boring piece of hagiography within Spielberg’s worst decade of filmmaking).

Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

Barry Lyndon is just one of many films that try to convey historic authenticity (felt, if not real) by drawing inspiration from period artwork. Think of the beautiful impressionistic compositions of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock or the invocation of Armenian and Persian miniatures in Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates. One of my favourite examples of this is Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon.

The artform that Ruiz draws the most inspiration from is the diorama, adding depth and layers to his intricate compositions. I will never forget the two-shot in the film where a pair of characters are talking behind a buggy which ‘pans’ back-and-forth as it is pulled by a horse to frame whichever subject who is speaking at a given moment through its windows. Regardless of the objective ‘authenticity’ of these films, they are so much better for their interpretation of period aesthetics.

Toyo Sesshu’s Hatsuboku Landscape (1495)

Animation provides filmmakers with a greater level of freedom to invoke artforms of yore while managing audience expectations about perceived ‘authenticity’. Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells bears little resemblance to early-medieval Irish history but perfectly translates the illuminations of The Book of Kells to the screen.

In discussions about Studio Ghibli, the late Isao Takahata has often been in the shadow of his higher-profile colleague Hayao Miyazaki, but there is something absolutely exquisite about the way he employs completely different artistic styles between (and within) each of his films. His final film The Tale of Princess Kaguya uses watercolours and ink painting to evoke the artwork of feudal Japan and, as a result, looks and feels completely differently to any other animated film.

Even Zack Snyder’s 300, for all its nauseating War on Terror jingoism contains an element of historic truth. No, the Spartans did not fight nearly naked, nor did their Persian enemy employ minotaurs. But Greek pottery often depicted scantily clad hoplites (even if male beauty standards and bulking techniques evolved in the subsequent two and a half millennia). The propaganda elements of the film are simultaneously applicable to George W Bush’s saber rattling and to the Greco-Persian Wars.

Before this point, the shared identity of the Greek city states was limited and individual polities may have identified just as much with their Persian neighbours than with other Greeks. When Xerxes approached the region, and a number of these states formed their own ‘coalition of the willing,’ they formed a shared Greek identity in opposition to the invaders. This identity relied on orientalist descriptions of the Persians that have left a legacy that has persisted all the way to 21st Century Islamophobia and imperialism. Zach Snyder’s film (and the Frank Miller comic it’s based on) may not tell us much about 5th Century BC history but it can tell us a lot about how the Spartans saw themselves and their enemies and it does, therefore, contain a type of authenticity.

If a film’s feeling of authenticity is ultimately decoupled from historical accuracy, what makes a film feel inauthentic? One example that comes to mind is Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. After the groundbreaking use of digital photography in his previous Collateral and Miami Vice (set in contemporary Los Angeles and Miami respectively), his John Dillinger biopic became his first film shot entirely in HD format.

In theory, the film format shouldn’t have any impact whatsoever on the verisimilitude of a period film, unless the camera itself is a character, but in Public Enemies, the cinematography feels completely alien to its depression-era setting. The same can be said for casting (for example, Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York). As writer Brandy Jensen accurately put it “some people just can’t be believably cast in a period piece like sorry Jessica Biel you have a face that knows about text messaging.”

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that ‘authenticity’ is not always the be all and end all of period films. Regardless of how their filmmaking makes you feel, each of the above examples is just as much about the time it was made as the time it was set and many filmmakers lean into that by employing anachronism with intent.

There is nobody in the world who can make gorgeous, privileged women grappling with ennui as cinematic as Sofia Coppola can, so Marie Antoinette was a natural fit. However, rather than a film about the doomed French queen (who is not a sympathetic character) she used her story as a jumping-off point for one that mostly feels like it’s about early-2000s party girl culture, complete with a hip post-punk soundtrack.

Intentional anachronism is also the name of the game in Justin Kurzel’s criminally underrated adaptation of True History of the Kelly Gang. Ned Kelly’s story has been done-to-death so why not reinterpret it as a queer punk film?

When I think about filmmakers striving for authenticity, I can’t help but think of a quote from Werner Herzog, (as I am wont to do). In his ‘Minnesota Declaration’, issued in opposition to Dogme-95, the Scandinavian cinéma vérité movement, he defined ‘ecstatic truth’ a concept that informs all his filmmaking, documentary and fiction alike (although he’d call this a false dichotomy):

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

Werner Herzog

This concept of ‘ecstatic truth’ underpins a lot of period filmmaking. Some of the films I have discussed are closer than others to what actually happened in history, but by definition, all films are abstracted from history. In this way, literal truth becomes secondary to ‘ecstatic truth’ and this mysterious and elusive quality can be found in films, whether or not they feel authentic.