Whose vanity mirror is it, really?

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 5:43pm

I love period dramas. I love everything about them: gorgeous cinematography of old cities, scores with music I’ve come to associate with growing up despite it being much before my time, transatlantic accents when appropriate. I love thinking about all of the work that goes into making sure they’re true to the times they’re portraying. It’s fun to trace history through the details of a story: trying to guess what part of a decade a film is set in based on the eyeliner and lipstick, on the hemlines and hairstyles, on whether everything in the kitchen is matching pastels or eclectic earth-tones, on the tiny gestures of femininity or chivalry that we’ve grown up seeing on big screens.

Basically, I binge “Mad Men” and rewatch “Pride and Prejudice” like The New Yorker is paying me to.

But after watching some of the newer cinematic offerings of the past couple months, I couldn’t help but compare two that have almost nothing in common — Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Darkest Hour” — precisely for how each handled those minute details. I’m talking, almost exclusively, about how and what we see in the vanity mirrors, the cosmetics scattered throughout the women’s rooms (and, of course, everything they metaphorically represent). Because I’ve started to tire of the easier moves that some of these dramas are employing.

“Mrs. Maisel” is set in the late 1950s, following the title character, Midge (Rachel Brosnahan “House of Cards”), a young Jewish housewife who discovers a talent for stand-up when her gleamingly perfect life begins to unravel. “Darkest Hour” is a film about Winston Churchill that provides, among other things, a look into the political underside of the plot of “Dunkirk.”

“Darkest Hour,” eerily reminiscent in some scenes of Spielberg's “Lincoln,” included two female characters: Churchill’s secretary, a complete and unabashed cliché, and his wife Clementine, the only character who seems to truly “get” him. Very limited, perfunctory attention was paid to the secretary’s lines and direction; with Clementine, they tried harder. There are a few moments where she gets to show a glimmer of understanding about her husband, typically withheld from other people. In one scene, we see her sit in front of her vanity mirror. She looks worn, almost haggard, looking at her reflection; her eyes are lined with soft charcoal, and face powder is lifting a little from her skin. Various concealing cosmetics are scattered artfully around her vanity table. There is a quiet sort of grace around her; we see her breathe deeply in, out — and then she reenters public life, wearing a uniform for a photo shoot to inspire women to do their part.

It was a quietly touching scene, but it came nowhere near the poignancy it was going for simply because we’ve seen that exact scene formula time and again. An intimate, feminized instance of privacy, of strength and vulnerability, surrounded and framed by the accoutrements of femininity or “womanhood” — moments like those are littered throughout period dramas, both the good and the bad. They’re easy to do, so they’re given more weight than they should, and because they’re so familiar, they’re easily accepted without critical examination. They’re perfunctory at this point and almost self-indulgent.

Part of what I found so compelling about “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was the funny and fresh take on moments like those, portrayed in a totally different light. We get to see Midge wake up next to her husband, Joel, under the sunlight that she has strategically let shine through her window onto her face. She scurries to the bathroom, freshens up, undoes her hair rollers and applies makeup, and then goes back to bed and pretends to wake up with her alarm. Later on in the season, we watch her mother do the same thing. They both perform their nightly cosmetic rituals after their husbands are asleep. In one of the episodes, when Midge finds herself having an impromptu make-out session with Joel, she stops him abruptly, with a serious look on her face, and tells him she has something important to tell him. Confused, and distracted, Joel urges her to spit it out — and she informs him that she had spent years secretly undoing every other button on her corset before having sex so that it wouldn’t take him too long to do it himself.

These moments are set to music, and aren’t at all rushed: They’re given the space they deserve. And they’re not framed didactically — there’s no disapproving shadow of judgment cast over the women who partake in behaviors meant to make themselves as appealing and faultless to men as possible. These scenes breathe.

Both “Maisel” and “Darkest Hour” have been criticized for some historical inaccuracies (“Darkest Hour” has also been criticized on other accounts, such as not truly conveying the trajectory of the relationship between Winston Churchill and the English people), which I would be remiss for not mentioning. But these moments in “Maisel” are so compelling that I was willing to forgive some of them anyway.