Period Films Directed by Women Reigned in 2020

Like all things 2020, last year was a very unusual one for film. The pandemic closed most movie theatres, shut down filming, and caused many films’ release dates to be rescheduled. However, there were a sizable number of period dramas released either before quarantine began or digitally. Many of these period-piece films were directed by women, including some impressive directorial debuts. 

Summerland 

One of the most overlooked films of the year was Jessica Swale’s Summerland, which was released onto streaming in late July. The film directorial debut of London playwright Jessica Swale, she also, remarkably, wrote the script. This World War II era drama has a fantastic cast, including Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucas Bond, Penelope Wilton, and Tom Courtenay. Swale previously worked with both Arterton and Mbatha-Raw in theatre in London and it’s clear that she is able to unearth the best in both actresses.

In a wonderfully original story, a grouchy and reclusive academic (Arterton) is forced to take in a young boy (Bond) who has been sent to the countryside because of the Blitz bombings. Over time, she finds herself opening up her heart to him as she shares her research about a pagan heaven called “Summerland.” As the film progresses, we see flashbacks to her past romantic relationship with a woman (Mbatha-Raw) and come to understand why she is so guarded. 

The film is unique amongst other period dramas for featuring an interracial lesbian romance, even though it’s not the main plotline. Arterton gives a wonderful leading performance, perfectly portraying a woman who only begins to show emotion as the walls around her heart are brought down by her young charge. The costume and production design, particularly of the seaside cottage, are wonderful. 

Some viewers might find it overly sentimental, but Summerland is sure to become a comfort film for many who enjoy period dramas. And it’s a great introduction to Swale, who is the screenwriter for the upcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. 

First Cow 

Kelly Reichhardt’s latest film First Cow, is a deliberately slow tale about friendship in the early 1800s Pacific Northwest. The screenplay by Reichhardt and Jonathan Raymond is based on Raymond’s 2004 book, The Half Life. Reichhardt and Raymond previously collaborated on films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. Their latest premiered at Telluride Film Festival in August of 2019 and won Best Film at the 2020 New York Film Critics Circle Awards. 

Cookie (John Magaro) and Lu (Orion Lee) are an unlikely pair who begin a lucrative business making “oily cakes” with milk stolen from the town’s only cow. The film has a very different, softer view of masculinity than we typically see, particularly in films set in this era. Toby Jones also features in the film, but most of the human cast is somewhat overshadowed by the now Twitter-famous and much-beloved Evie-the-cow. 

The film, which is steeped with an air of melancholy, has excellent color and a unique score by William Tyler. Its production design is also excellent, including a lot of very elaborate outdoor spaces. The way that it portrays both Native American and Chinese-American communities and people in this time period is exciting and atypical for most films set in this era. (In fact, those communities being represented is arguably atypical for films set in this era.) 

The movie’s slow pace may turn some off, but for those who appreciate it, First Cow is a stand-out amongst the past year’s films.

Emma 

It isn’t very often that a new adaptation is made of a Jane Austen novel that really makes headlines. But Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. is a gorgeous and exciting new take on one of Austen’s best novels, first published in 1815. It’s Wilde’s directorial debut, though her fashion photography background certainly shines through with delightful cinematography and an excellent use of framing. Eleanor Catton’s screenplay manages to maintain all of the heart and character development of the novel while also translating its comedic satire of English Regency-era society very well. 

Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as the titular character, a rich young woman whose meddling often lands her in trouble despite her good intentions. Johnny Flynn is also fantastic as her friend, Mr. Knightley, who presents a more emotional and sensitive period drama love interest than is typically seen. The cast also features Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, and Bill Nighy, who are delightfully funny in their roles. 

From its lavish production design to its beautiful and remarkably period-accurate costumes by Alexandra Byrne, the film is visually stunning. Byrne is likely to receive a nomination, if not the win itself, at this year’s Academy Awards. The film also features a great score by Isobel Waller-Bridge (yes, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister) and a fantastic original song by its leading man, Johnny Flynn, who is also a musician. 

It’s not only one of the best period dramas of this past year, but it’s also one of the best Austen adaptations ever made. 

These three are only a few of the fantastic period films directed by women this past year. Others include works from established directors like Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, Josephine Decker’s Shirley, and Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones. In 2021, Regina King has already made her directorial debut with One Night in Miami. Whether period films are your go-to genre or you’re exploring them more fully for the first time (perhaps after binging Bridgerton), 2020 is full of gems to enjoy. 

© Nicole Ackman (01/29/21) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Summerland 

Middle Photo: John Magaro in First Cow

Bottom Photo: Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in Emma.

Photo Credits: Lionsgate, A24, Focus Features 

Tags: emma, FF2 Media, first cow, period drama, summerland

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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