Gay period dramas aren’t dead – ask the Iris Prize audience

All we want is for our historical lesbian movies to be cosy and reassuring when few other things are.

Virginia McKenna and Miriam Margolyes sit in wheelchairs side by side, smiling as they're pushed at high speed down a corridor by nurses in blue uniforms
Image credit: Iris Prize Festival

Amongst a wave of critical backlash for Francis Lee’s Ammonite, you’d be forgiven for thinking audiences are done with the lesbian period drama (a phrase that will never fail to make me giggle internally).  What started with Carol has become a wave of weepy historical movies starring white women struggling against the bounds of old-timey patriarchy.

“This is hardly the first lesbian film to be all-white, to be all-cis, to be a period piece, to be melancholy…to introduce a young woman with a husband. It’s not this one film’s fault that it happened to land within just about every lesbian cinema discourse imaginable,” Drew Gregory wrote in her review of Ammonite for Autostraddle.

Wings has just won the inaugural Co-Op Audience Award at this year’s Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival and it lands firmly within all those discourses. Directed by Jamie Weston, who co-wrote and co-produced with Carla Fraser, it chronicles two WW2 land girls (played by Fraser and queer actress Rosie Day) who fall in love, separating when one woman’s husband returns from the war. Decades later, they meet again in a care home and society’s new attitude to queerness gives the lovers (played in old age by Miriam Margolyes and Virginia McKenna) a second chance at being together. It’s largely without dialogue, using well-worn tropes for maximum impact: the husband marches off to war to the sound of drums and pennywhistles; a camera focuses on his face in a wedding photo as the two women dance in the living room. Margolyes and McKenna bring every ounce of their considerable experience to sell the touching finale. I won’t lie to you, I’m not big on wartime stories, but I watched it on Remembrance Day, cried my eyes out and felt better.

The Iris Prize winner, chosen by a jury, was Short Calf Muscle – an absurdist Dutch black comedy about a gay man who learns that everyone thinks he’s a gnome. The shortlist of 35 films was hugely diverse and neither Weston nor Fraser have identified publicly as queer, but the only award chosen by public vote went to a film that hit every lesbian period film button. Clearly, this was a point in its favour with the Iris Prize punters – but was it just the reassurance of familiarity that grabbed them?

I’ll have to get spoilery now, so look away if you’re bothered (or just go and watch Wings, it’s only 18 minutes long). What Wings gets right is the same thing Carol got right: a happy ending. It’s not a requirement, of course; Portrait of a Lady on Fire earned its smile-because-it-happened finale with a careful exploration of the subtle colours of female intimacy. But couples who end up together are still a relative rarity in queer media and the reason Carol felt ground-breaking to queer women as well as straight film critics was that it didn’t let the homophobic reality of the past (or, indeed, the present) dictate modern-day art. It indulged in some Bidenesque tension-building and then it gave the audience what they wanted.

We all lost our collective shit last week because we’re starved for joy and reassurance. We just need something to go right for once, and if it’s something familiar, so much the better. It’s part of why the new lesbian romcom Happiest Season is generating so much hype, even taking into account that it’s directed by Clea DuVall and stars Kristen Stewart. This is the kind of era the period romance was made for. I therefore predict the age of the historical lesbian movie has a few more years left in it yet, if filmmakers are brave enough to remember that women – of all colours – have always found ways to be happy together.

Wings is available to watch on Channel 4 and All4 now.

Author: Ellie Wilson

I’m a features and lifestyle journalist of six years’ experience. I spent 18 months in 2017-18 writing profiles of businessmen and I haven’t written about a single man since. Thanks to formative obsessions with both Lord of the Rings and Anne of Green Gables, I like my entertainment wholesome, gay and overly invested in trees. I am white, cis?, middle-class and have no diagnosed disabilities, pronouns she/her. You can see my work at thephasemag.com and elliewilsonwrites.com, and find me on Twitter @writative.

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