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  • Biography and History in Film ed. by Thomas S. Freeman and David L. Smith
  • Ian Scott (bio)
Biography and History in Film
Thomas S. Freeman and David L. Smith, editors
Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, xi + 336 pp. ISBN 9783319894072, $119.99 hardcover.

In Thomas Freeman and David Smith’s introduction to their fascinating new book of essays, Biography and History in Film, they remark on the tendency of biographical movies to privilege western white men when it comes to appreciations of the renowned and redoubtable in history. Women and minorities have always been shunted to the sidelines, they claim, pointing out that more attention was paid to Marie Curie’s marriage than her scientific work in Mervyn Le Roy’s 1943 film Madame Curie, compared with William Dieterle’s celebrated account of The Story of Louise Pasteur (1936). Their point reveals the genre’s paucity of appreciation for prominent women in history, as well as Hollywood’s gender bias.

But although Madame Curie is only mentioned fleetingly, it offers a further reminder of a more recent biopic about Curie that befell some of the same criticism. Radioactive (2019) stars Rosamund Pike as the noted French physicist and chemist. Pike is an actor of considerable scope and force, as many might attest to who saw her performance in A Private War (2018), another biopic, where she portrayed the murdered journalist Marie Colvin with an impressive array of contradictory flaws and courage. In Radioactive she is equally uncompromising, and was praised by the critics for bringing vitality and dynamism to the role. Not so the film, [End Page 867] however. Adapted from a graphic novel, Radioactive was chastised by reviewers for being “by-the-numbers” biographical fare and lambasted by scholars for simply inventing stuff that Curie may have done, didn’t do, or simply never went near. Radioactive’s admirable style and staging was a key facet, but the critics rehearsed many of the arguments about fact, fiction, and felicitousness that are at the heart of Freeman and Smith’s edited collection.

Those arguments are valuable, and the book’s contributors do a fine job, for the most part, of teasing out the features of biography on screen, rather than a life on the page. The collection assembles biopics across time and national film cultures: an assortment that runs from Joan of Arc and Margaret Thatcher to El Cid and Lincoln; from Emma Hamilton and Elizabeth I to Oscar Wilde and Antarctic explorer Robert Scott; with Solomon Northup, the aforementioned Louis Pasteur, the ubiquitous John F. Kennedy, and William Shakespeare all included too.

Ahead of these chapters, Freeman and Smith set up the predicaments for biographical film, not least taste and teleology. Notable recent successes like Rocket Man (2019) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) mine collective seams of nostalgia in pop culture that political and historical figures sometimes find difficult to do. Quoting Dennis Bingham’s argument about individuals being the most obvious prism through which—sometimes complex—events are mapped out, Smith and Freeman agree that, “the life and lived experiences of one individual have provided the most accessible way to understand history” (25). Whether you are Elton John or El Cid, life stories can have similar arcs, in other words, and thus similarly universal themes. Likewise, teleology makes the end point of famous lives already known, thus affecting a tendency to make the path to that finale much more dramatic, and, by instinct, wayward to the historical fact.

Nevertheless, Smith and Freeman do their best to avoid making the historian judge and juror in these matters, and the highlights of the book offer some rich observations. Elizabeth van Houts argues that Carl Dreyer’s and Robert Bresson’s films about Joan of Arc are every bit the canonical contributors to the legend in the same way that nineteenth-century statues erected for the martyred Maid of Orléans were. Samantha Cavell’s chapter on Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman (1941) effectively recites the case for the film’s World War II propaganda value. And David Bevington’s comparison of Shakespeare in Love (1999) and Anonymous (2012), “two films more or less about Shakespeare,” is as entertaining and richly informative as...