Does a great costume drama have to have great costumes? Do great costumes make a costume drama great? The answer to the first question is no, but it helps. The answer to the second is absolutely not: consider "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), an orgy of sumptuous silk wrapped around an anorectic drama, or this year's Oscar winner for best costumes, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," which laid an overheated golden egg. The historical epics, swashbucklers and literary romances that fall under the costume-drama rubric favor kings, queens and aristocrats over the common man. Royalty may be rotten, but it always looks good.
The colors of Colonial New England, on ample display in HBO's seven-part miniseries "John Adams," tend toward drab browns and grays. Let's admit it: democracy was not stylish. This superficial but unavoidable fact may account for the underrepresentation of the American Revolution in Hollywood movies, which have always preferred the hoop skirts and mossclad plantations of the Civil War era to the humble garb of 1770s Boston and Philadelphia. But "John Adams," based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, proudly—and successfully, based on the four episodes available for review—rebels against the slick romantic conventions of the typical Hollywood costume drama.
How could you not, if you choose the squat, cranky, resolutely unglamorous Adams as your protagonist and put a bald, bewigged Paul Giamatti in the role? Dispensing with Adams's early years as the son of a farmer and illiterate mother, director Tom Hooper and writer Kirk Ellis begin their saga in 1770, at the time of the Boston Massacre. Adams, already wed to Abigail (Laura Linney) and the father of four children, is hired as a lawyer to defend the British troops who fired upon the rebellious Boston mob, an unpopular assignment but one that demonstrates his unwavering commitment to the rule of law—and shows off his strategic brilliance. This first episode won't get your blood racing. It's a bit pokey, and there's little to delight the eye in those plain New England chambers. Be patient: the pugnacious Adams, a fascinating mixture of humility and ambition, grows on you, and he is soon joined by an all-star team of supporting revolutionaries: Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and the towering, soft-spoken Gen. George Washington (David Morse, with nose putty), a sight gag himself when standing next to the diminutive Adams.
Any lover of rough-and-tumble backroom politics will be swept up in the debates and horse-trading compromises as the representatives to the Continental Congress agonize whether to break from England. We have the delicious sensation of eavesdropping on the birth of a nation. Pennsylvania's John Dickinson (Zeljko Ivanek), fearing a bloodbath, urges compromise and conciliation while the wily, acerbic Franklin teaches the headstrong Adams the arts of political subterfuge and urges Jefferson to remove the whiff of the pulpit from a phrase in the Declaration of Independence. This is a show that loves the telling detail. There's a rare intimacy to the series' approach to epochal historic events. There's no Valley Forge, no Paul Revere ride, but we're thrust onto the storm-tossed Atlantic when a seasick Adams, accompanied by his 14-year-old son John Quincy, sails to France to make an alliance with Louis XVI. Favoring gritty authenticity over romantic gloss, Hooper ("Elizabeth I," "Longford") doesn't spare us the sight of a wounded naval officer undergoing an amputation by hacksaw, the queasy-making process by which Abigail and her children are inoculated against smallpox, or the nastiness of a crowd of Boston patriots tarring and feathering an English seaman.
The gray palette is radically transformed during Adams's long sojourn in France, Holland and England. Unlike the sly, sybaritic Franklin, he's a disaster in Paris; in this leisurely world of powdered faces and baroque artifice, the blunt, aggressive Adams is as welcome as an un-housebroken mutt. In the wonderful fourth episode, the wise Abigail joins him, and their reunion—passionate and almost wordless, years of pent-up frustration awkwardly released—is moving in an unexpected way. The show's deliberate, sotto voce style may strike some as more English than American (the director is a Brit), but it pays off in one finely observed scene after another: you're not likely to forget Adams's nerve-racking encounter with a strange, google-eyed King George, who must welcome the ambassador from the nation that has just severed itself from his dominion.
Among the many things that make "John Adams" resonate—its emphasis on the importance of diplomacy in world affairs, its reminder of the contested principles upon which the country was based—is the marriage of John and Abigail, which feels strikingly modern without being anachronistic. It's a lovely, quirky portrait of a union based on true friendship and intellectual equality.
Trying to make historical dramas "relevant," however, has its dangers. The disastrous Demi Moore version of "The Scarlet Letter" (1995) didn't think kids would go for all that Sin and Redemption stuff, so it turned Hester Prynne into a centerfold-worthy feminist heroine: everything that followed was hilariously wrongheaded. "The Other Boleyn Girl," based on Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel, takes shameless fictional liberties with the facts about Anne Boleyn, her sister Mary and Henry VIII, and his break from the Catholic Church. With Scarlett Johansson as the demure "other" sister, who wins the king's love but gets dumped even after giving him a male heir, and Natalie Portman as the Machiavellian Anne, who drives the randy king (Eric Bana) wild by withholding her sexual favors, "The Other Boleyn Girl" initially intrigues as a witty portrait of sexual gamesmanship at a time when women were pawns in a royal game. But it loses steam when the catfighting abruptly gives way to grim realpolitik. Portman keeps growing as an actress, but she doesn't yet have the psychic or physical stature required to play Anne—this role demands a diva. Though she does look smashing in emerald green, which, as anyone who's seen "Atonement" knows, seems to be this season's color of desire.
The most memorable costume dramas must find the balance between spectacle and intimacy, so that the clothes become expres-sions of the soul. Two Italian masters of the form, Luchino Visconti ("Senso," "The Leopard") and Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Last Emperor"), happened to be both supreme cinematic sensualists and Marxists, and the tension between their worship of aristocratic splendor (Visconti was born a count) and their political ideology resulted in seductive, lushly ambivalent art. The contrast between the physical beauty and the moral hollowness of the 18th-century salons in Stephen Frears's "Dangerous Liaisons" set off wicked sparks. The bloody passions of 16th-century France flooded the screen in Patrice Chéreau's operatic "Queen Margot," a movie as emotionally and sexually profligate as such Jane Austen movie gems as "Persuasion" and "Sense and Sensibility" are reticent and well behaved. Sofia Coppola, in her ambitious, deceptively frivolous "Marie Antoinette," tried to scramble our notions of past and present, celebrity and royalty, tossing a pair of anachronistic pink Converses into her display of 18th-century footwear, illustrating among other things that while fashion is ephemeral, our obsession with it is eternal. As different as these movies are, they all succeed in converting the past into an emotional present tense. A bad costume drama, on the other hand, is like a museum where you're always aware that history sits behind glass. A good one makes us forget that we're slouching in a theater in jeans and sneakers.