Evolution can be an enemy of art. That is what makers of period films are discovering with dismay — the 19th-century face is almost impossible to find. Suffering, starvation, illness that marks the body, the effects of impure drinking water, unsanitary conditions of living and other privations can no longer be communicated by the bodies and faces of the best actors in the business, however hard they try to ‘enter’ their characters by losing weight, changing their hairstyles, or wearing red-rimmed contact lenses as they did in the musical, Les Misérables, recently. Better nutrition, exercise routines, advanced dentistry — as one actor lamented — and, possibly, sharing in the overwhelming cultural urge to look as though everyone has a direct supply line from the fountain of youth have caused evolution, looks-wise, to take quite a few strides forward. So viewers of period films, themselves evolved into fine observers in a predominantly visual culture, can be suddenly put off by the gym-trained pectorals of an actor convincingly performing as a hard-drinking CIA agent, for example, or the hair of a poor little girl may burst on them like the advertisement of a shampoo. And the best actors and their make-up artists may not be able to hide piercings, leaving an admiring viewership wondering, for example, where Abraham Lincoln got his ears pierced, as, apparently, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln has.
Fortunately for period filmmakers with a penchant for fidelity to the chosen times, evolution is nothing if not biased. It leans heavily towards the fittest; in this case, the richest. The acute problem of the lack of unpretty faces and bodies is particularly Hollywood’s. Nothing, from dentistry and plastic surgery to better food and yoga teachers, or even body piercings and tattoos, can be had without money — and quite a bit of it. Maybe beauty now lies more in the pockets of the consumer than in the eyes of the beholder. There is no mistaking the secret note of pride in all the artists lamenting the difficulty of casting correctly for period films. The faces their race is producing do not look as if they could have suffered. This may make art difficult, but it should instil a sense of superiority too.
Hollywood would have had no difficulty about good, bad and ugly faces and bodies if its filmmakers came on a search to India. Although, close to home, it is difficult to think of a correctly represented 19th-century period film with tall, stylish men in a state where men are growing shorter and women taller. Apart from the fact that the faces are changing too, not in the Hollywood way perhaps, but through acculturation into a kind of generalized combo-culture that does not allow for the knowledge or articulation of the humble mother tongue except, with cultivated stiffness, on ceremonial occasions. But the Americans go hunting in Britain. They are delightfully frank about it. Apparently, that is where people are put together in a slightly more “ramshackle” way. The compliment here is easily decipherable. All the British need to do to appreciate it is revive their famous sense of humour.