Nostalgia films ain't what they used to be, Robin Buss discovers
The Wings of the Dove (15)
Mrs Dalloway (PG)
Four period films, two named after ships and two particularly about women, but all very different - so much so that, together, they render inadequate the labels that tend to be attached to such films: "heritage cinema", "nostalgia films", and so on.
Titanic certainly has some of the supposed characteristics of the genre: conspicuous consumption; a fetishistic approach to objects (the framing story is about the search for a diamond that is supposed to have gone down with the ship, and huge amounts of money were poured into re-creating the luxury of the liner's internal fittings). But the idea of nostalgia founders against this monster. Titanic is, after all, about a disaster and chiefly memorable for its special effects.
Amistad is also constructed on a large scale and based on actual events (in 1837), but has a more intimate feel. The death of the ship's captain, during the mutiny with which the film opens, is horribly close to us, not least because we are invited to experience it both as killer and as victim, "sympathising" with both in the literal sense ("suffering with") of that word. The slaves take over the ship and we are expected to applaud their actions, even (in one of those transcendental moments that one finds dotted around Steven Spielberg's films) to see them as the "noble savages" of Romantic myth. The rest of the film is a lesson in helping us to see them as human beings.
Recaptured and taken to New Haven, they are put on trial and their defence entrusted to Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) - a typical Spielberg hero, who looks and behaves less like a 19th-century attorney than a Californian computer nerd.
While the slave-owners from the South want to see the mutineers returned to Spain and hanged, and the abolitionist would be happy for them to suffer as martyrs to the cause, Baldwin wants only their freedom. He realises that the whole case revolves around whether they were slaves being transferred from Cuba, as the ship's documents state, or Africans illegally captured in Sierra Leone. None of them speaks English or Spanish, so Baldwin has first of all to make their leader, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), understand what is happening and then, as he is advised by the wise old John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), to find the story that will sway the case in their favour: in court, Adams says, the "best story" wins.
The issues (slavery, race, Spanish-American relations, the coming war between North and South) are brought down to the relationship between two men embroiled in a courtroom drama.
To judge from the interviews he gave at the time of the film's release, Iain Softley was worried about attracting the "heritage" label to his version of The Wings of the Dove, so he had his scriptwriter, Hossein Amini, distance it as far as possible from Henry James's novel, bringing the action forward to 1910 and putting in a lot of explicit sex. What they discovered under those convoluted Jamesian periods was rather a good story about jealousy and manipulation. But it is hard to escape that heritage feel, especially with the lush costumes and a Venetian setting. Could it be that the film-makers are trying to have it both ways?
Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, is perfectly confident about its place in the order of things. Beautifully adapted from Virginia Woolf's novel by Eileen Atkins, it revolves around the events of a day in the life of a politician's wife in 1923, as she prepares for an important party while reflecting on the events of the summer, some 30 years before, when she became engaged.
The Edwardian period, the setting for so many recent "nostalgia" films, is here present as a distant memory; and the aftermath of the First World War, which most such movies anticipate as a closure, hangs menacingly above Mrs Dalloway's day. This is a superbly acted, finely judged film, about life choices, constraints, time and loss, which makes you want to read, or re-read, the novel - a film, in fact, with the virtues of all the best literary adaptations.