The Battle of Style vs. Substance in Period Dramas and Film

August 13, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was discussing a new studio film with a colleague when I was reminded of a particular debate among film lovers. He hadn’t really enjoyed the film, which I had loved, and declared it as being ‘too much style over substance’. I agreed, but was quietly fascinated by the fact that its showy flourishes had instilled adoration in me, but had repelled my colleague. Is there value in giving a film a free pass, even if it seems vacuous on the surface? Like all things to do with film, I’m beginning to realise that this is highly personal.

Period dramas in particular, are subject to this debate in a very intense fashion, since often they’re adaptations or historical stories. This means that substance in the form of a fully-fleshed story nearly always takes precedence, and cinematic tricks – while they enhance the film – don’t often deliberately dominate them. One of about a million examples is Outlander – it has a job to do, which is to adapt Diana Gabaldon’s story as directly as possible. It adds stunning scenery through convenience (and maybe the odd dry Scottish day) but the people behind the series know that the fans are there for the characters, not necessarily the cinematography or creative use of editing.

When period dramas start to leave behind the story in favour of an auteur’s ‘vision’, that’s when the controversy comes along. While many enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there was still strong criticism as to its decision to split story between a large cast, leaving no clear hero or complex character development. Instead, it used cinematic techniques focused on creating that atmosphere of fear and tension that those men must have felt whilst trapped in a horrendous situation.

Another distinctive director is Joe Wright, whose literary adaptations haven’t always been content to follow fans’ attachment to the story itself but instead have looked at the source material as a platform on which to build something new. Atonement is probably one of his most by-the-book films, perhaps because the novel itself is so atmospheric and richly descriptive, giving him plenty of room for artistic flair, but his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina both caused some consternation between book fans.

In both those cases, the main criticism came from the decision to eschew the nitty gritty of the classic stories to leave room for directorial flourishes, artistic tributes and experiments with the potential of screen. That isn’t to say that they didn’t have any emphasis on story at all, but when you think back to Anna Karenina, chances are you remember the decision to place everything in the backdrop of a theatre better than you remember small details between Levin and his older brother.

In the end, while we know style works over substance for politics by this point, I’m fairly sure that if you were to poll all film watchers, a larger portion would objectively favour a film that prioritises story. However, that doesn’t allow for the uniqueness of people. I adore Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice because of its style, and I adored Dunkirk for that same reason, but I’ve used that same criticism of ‘style over substance’ in the opening paragraph of reviews of other films that fall under the same description. It’s got to be more than just whether the film falls under one umbrella or the other, but whether that style spoke to you at that moment.

For example, here’s a small selection of personal reasons as to why I loved the style aspect of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice:

  • I have an affection for the countryside from growing up there, and love beautiful landscapes.
  • I’m obsessed with film scores and far more permitting than many film critics in allowing the music to dominate what’s on screen.
  • I love inventive camera work, and have a particular affection for Joe Wright’s exemplary use of tracking shots in his films.

However, if you were going to ask me about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, commonly acknowledged as a clear example of ‘style over substance’, I would find little in the style to appeal to me personally. I don’t expect people to agree (and lots don’t) but from my own standpoint, I have always had little patience for making violence and gore beautiful. Dunkirk, probably in part due to the 12A rating, doesn’t place any emphasis on violence. Watching Ryan Gosling beating people to a pulp in an elevator while an (admittedly gorgeous) electronic soundtrack plays over him, unfortunately falls under my turn-offs.

Everyone has their own tolerance for ‘style’ in films. Some have no time for flourishes at all, most only like it when it strikes a particular chord for personal reasons and a very small number would happily only ever watch those types of films. They’re often the most controversial types of films in terms of audience reaction, but there’s some value to be found in that. If every single movie was narrative driven, it’s unlikely we’d see the breadth of power and emotion that film as a medium can incite. It has so many tricks up its sleeve – too many to always leave in favour of giving space to those complex character dialogues.

So if you like them, love your stylish films. Don’t feel ashamed that you liked something that on the surface, seemed to be shallow in detail. A film is not empty if it prompts reactions and memories in you, and you can learn just as much about a movie from the way you react, as from the action on screen. It’s also certainly not completely devoid of value if it uses technical skill in a way that is genuinely breathtaking.

Style and substance have a place in cinema, but one thing is for certain – a person’s reaction to either is forever personal.

More about Jen Scouler

Jen Scouler is a magazine journalist, film critic and the founder of Lost In Drama. With degrees in both English Literature and Digital Journalism, she has experience of writing for popular print and online publications. Jen is also devoted to her metaphorical novelist aunties - Aunt Jane, Charlotte and Jo are particular favourites - and is usually found with an Earl Grey tea in hand.

Speak your mind, dear reader.

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