We live in a golden age of historical fiction, from Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” adapted for television by Barry Jenkins, to Mark Sullivan’s bestseller “Beneath a Scarlet Sky,” in development by Pascal Pictures, to Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall,” adapted into a BAFTA-winning BBC limited series as well as a Broadway and West End hit.
That trend embraces Hollywood biopics and fact-based movies, always Oscar favorites, as directors turn to the past to sift clues and comprehend the human condition. As we consider the director contenders, whether they’ve spun stories of individuals or events, they’re refracting the past to reveal present truth. From Pablo Larraín to Reinaldo Marcus Green, Aaron Sorkin to Ridley Scott to Lin-Manuel Miranda, this year’s directors feel history’s pull and shape that raw clay into “Spencer,” “King Richard,” “Being the Ricardos,” “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and “House of Gucci.”
Sometimes filmmakers hew to the facts but, as Booker Prizewinning novelist Mantel stated: “facts are not truth.” So filmmakers compress, fudge and shift the order of events in order to deliver a fresh, compelling narrative — and, perhaps, a closer approximation of the truth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Spencer,” which director Larraín describes as “true fiction.” As with his fantastical biopic “Jackie,” which scored Natalie Portman an Oscar nom for her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, this drama positions the gorgeous and gawky Kristen Stewart as a lead actress contender. She radiates authenticity as Princess Diana. As Larraín tells Variety, the films overlap in that “everything is related to a human situation that is fragile, full of pain and panic, and also a chance to heal.”
As with “Jackie,” Larraín tightens the focus. “Spencer” happens over three days in 1991 at Sandringham Castle where the royal family gathers to celebrate Christmas.
“Minimizing the amount of time increases the amount of freedom you have. We’re not trying to say who Diana was, but make an exercise of memory and identity and humanity,” he adds. The script is a fable, not a documentary.
The director acknowledges the temptation to mimic historical characters. That obsession with an accent, or a physicality “can be dangerous,” Larraín says. “Kristen was able to capture Diana’s spirit and create her own version of Diana. … It feels like the truth, human and fragile. You believe she’s broken; when she’s healed, it’s beautiful to see.”
Larraín told Stewart up front: “We’re going to be very close to the camera. Once you’re close and let time pass, there’s a moment that viewers will be with her so long, so intensely that you create a connection and a relationship with the audience.” He adds, “ There’s a glass between audience and character. And you have to break that glass.”
Writer-director Sorkin also uses a tight time frame for “Being the Ricardos.” Sorkin’s latest unfurls over a week of production of the famed sitcom “I Love Lucy” with Nicole Kidman cast as Lucille Ball opposite Javier Bardem’s Desi Arnaz.
Like a clothesline, Sorkin stretches the plot from table reading to cameras rolling, pinning on past incidents, compressing their timing and sequence.
“I took three events from Lucy and Desi’s life — the accusation of Lucy being a communist, Lucy’s pregnancy and Desi showing up on the cover of a tabloid magazine with another woman — and I had them happen during one production week of ‘I Love Lucy,’” Sorkin tells Variety.
“‘Being the Ricardos’ isn’t a biopic,” adds Sorkin, bristling at the term that dates to the 1940s and joins biography and picture. “I wasn’t trying to dramatize Lucy and Desi’s greatest hits. I was telling a specific story and I used moments from their lives that helped tell it. … If you take your protagonists and put obstacles in front of them and pressure on them, you can create drama that reveals interesting things about the characters.”
In contrast, Green’s “King Richard” takes the long view. The sports drama about the making of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, who executive produced, focuses on their father, Will Smith’s Richard Williams, and the family dynamics that contributed to the women’s success and stress.
Green, the Bronx-born baseball-playing son of a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother, identifies with the Williams family.
“My dad would sit in his car parked at an angle in the outfield so he could get a good vantage point to see me at home plate,” he says.
Green drew from that fatherson connection, saying: “My father demanded excellence. But he did it with a sense of care and protection for his boys, and a deep sense of pride. I could relate to those traits in Richard. I could relate to a man who was using the tools he had to do the best he could. Not always perfect. But always in pursuit of perfection.
As for working in the constraints of historical fiction, he says, “in this case, it’s a biopic told through the perspective of a father who had a plan for his daughters. And it’s only enhanced by the family who quickly show us one man didn’t accomplish this alone … they’re the spine to Richard’s plan. Without them, there’s no story.”
Another priority for Green was depicting a variety of images of Black Americans on screen.
“I never saw this as a ‘get out of Compton’ story, I always saw it as a ‘We’re from Compton’ story. It’s an important distinction because you can move on from where you grew up but be proud of that very place that help to shape you into the individual you are today. The Williams wear Compton as their armor in the world.
The Williams family comes across as both unique and universal. “It’s important to see Black life in a raw and unflinching manner, and one that shows the beautiful people we are,” Green says. “The Williams [family embodies] this beauty in everything they do, especially with how they carry themselves on and off the court, with grace and humility, Their legacy will be far greater than what they proved they can do to a ball with a tennis racket. It’s impossible to not want to root for a family that moves through life the way the Williams do.”
A very different family holds Scott’s focus in “The House of Gucci.” Greed, betrayal and materialism form the holy trinity of his salty star-studded true crime based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction bestseller “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed.”
Miranda looks back with tenderness, sorrow and song at “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield). On a Netflix video interview, he says: “This is not one of those biopics where you see the Mozart writing his masterpiece. This is a movie about failure and getting back up, and his masterpiece is ahead of him.”
With subjects from Diana to Lucy to Larson, from the Williams family to the Guccis, this year’s dynamic directors sift history’s dust to create juicy life in all its chaos and connections — both where we went off the rails and where we aced our goals. As novelist Mantel suggests, facts aren’t emotional truth. The challenge is unpeeling and unpacking the hidden thoughts, motives, dreams and desires of past players to tell stories that capture the audience. The characters mustn’t just live and breathe but bicker and brood, create and procreate. They must take on their own energy and, like Stewart in “Spencer,” they must soar.