Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

Hollywood loves medieval men. If there’s an opportunity to don chainmail, pull up a seat at a round table, or deliver a rousing speech on horseback before a fight, there are no end of famous men lining up to step into the past. However, women often have a raw deal of it, neglected to the position of wives or mothers or queens, pushed to one side in order to elevate and highlight the men at the true heart of the story. Guinevere is always second fiddle to Lancelot, and Marion never really gets a look in when Robin Hood’s around. Many of the most well-known medieval films – Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, A Knight’s Tale, Excalibur – are tales of men.

Fairy-tales and adaptations of legends, however, allow for women to take the lead. Disney animations lead the way in the representation of medieval women, with the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Aladdin, Mulan, Tangled and Sleeping Beauty all featuring heroines from the Middle Ages or earlier. And that’s also not forgetting the Shrek franchise – Princess Fiona may have been trapped in a tower guarded by a dragon, but she was no damsel in distress. Then there are the classic fantasy offerings – 1998’s Ever After and 1987’s The Princess Bride.

Our top five films for this month feature a Pixar animation; a silent masterpiece; a ‘00s rom com; an Oscar-winning turn from one of the greatest actresses in history; and a black comedy with three horny nuns. Without further ado…

Brave

(2012, Dir.: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell)

In the Scottish Highlands, Princess Merida of DunBroch (Kelly Macdonald) defies an age-old custom by refusing to become betrothed, causing chaos in the kingdom. When Merida is granted a single wish, she must use her own bravery and wits to save her family and the kingdom from a beastly curse. Merida was the first Disney Princess created by Pixar; Pixar’s first female protagonist; and the first Disney Princess to not have a love interest, instead focussing on the love between a mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), and her daughter. After the film’s release, the merchandise featuring Merida had her proportions altered to become slimmer and curvier – akin to the shape of previous Disney Princesses – causing an outcry and public backlash. Disney relented and the alterations were removed, but the exercise highlighted public opinion on the body shape of young female protagonists in animated films, and the damaging impact this could have on their audience.

Brave is available stream on Disney+

Ella Enchanted

(2004, Dir.: Tommy O’Haver)

At the height of her Princess Diaries fame, Anne Hathaway starred as the titular role in Ella Enchanted, a medieval rom-com fairy-tale. Ella is enchanted by her fairy godmother to be constantly obedient – a problem that is exploited by her new stepfamily and causes mischief when she meets the prince of the land, Prince Char (yes, really). It’s a classic of the early ‘00s, with dodgy CGI, questionable accents, a floppy-haired British prince (Hugh Dancy) and a bizarre musical number over the closing credits. It has it all.

Ella Enchanted is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

The Little Hours

(2017, Dir.: Jeff Baena)

Described by the Catholic League as “pure trash”, The Little Hours is a black comedy set in the Middle Ages, following three nuns (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci and Aubrey Plaza) in a convent who become enamoured by a young gardener (Dave Franco). As the NSFW trailer above shows, the film is anachronistic with medieval sets and costumes juxtaposed against contemporary dialogue. The film is loosely based on The Decameron, a series of novellas by 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio.

The Little Hours is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

The Lion in Winter

(1968, Dir.: Anthony Harvey)

In this classic 1968 historical drama, Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole), his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), their children and their guests gather in Chinon, Touraine, at Christmas in 1183. The film charts the political and emotional turmoil experienced by this royal family as Henry’s wife and three sons plot against him to determine a successor to the crown. The cast is astonishing (a young Sir Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart is especially pleasing), but it is Katharine Hepburn who shines, winning her third Academy Award (here for Leading Actress) for her turn as the estranged queen.

The Lion in Winter is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(1928, Dir.: Carl Theodore Dreyer)

Hailed as a masterpiece and one of the most prolific silent films of all time, The Passion of Joan of Arc is based on the 15th-century trial and execution of the titular heroine (played by Renée Falconetti). Falconetti was forced to endure difficult conditions at the hands of director Carl Dreyer, as he made her kneel on stone to better show the pain on her character’s face, and he insisted they shot in complete silence. Despite the filming conditions, her performance is deemed one of the most moving and impressive in film history, and the movie itself was described by Jonathan Rosenbaum for Toronto International Film Festival’s ‘Essential 100’ list in 2010 as “the pinnacle of silent cinema – and perhaps of the cinema itself”.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is available stream on the BFI Player


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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