• Is grey-green the new sepia?

Yesterday, in the local arts centre, I caught up with the most recent Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011).  As The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw put it, it’s ‘cool, temperate’ and understated (except in the overlong opening – and recapitulated – storm-flight sequence).  Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are credible in age and empathy, though the edginess between them is less pointed than in previous versions (maybe that’s to the good).  It’s beautifully shot, and that led me to ponder on colour tinting in recent period films.

I’m not a film buff nor do I have any technical knowledge, but I’m struck by the overwhelmingly grey-green palette not only of this Jane Eyre but also the three-part BBC TV adaptation of Great Expectations (Brian Kirk, 2011) that went out between Christmas and New Year.  The outdoor visuals were stunning in both, but those in Great Expectations were outstanding: the marshes, the Thames, the London streets.  In Jane Eyre they were picturesque rather than threatening (rather like the film itself), while in Great Expectations the tension was ratcheted up by the half-lights.  In both films, facial expression was often more telling than the spoken word.  In Great Expectations, young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) was extraordinarily powerful in this regard.

Why this muted colour trend, if it is one?  It appears to be reaching for some imagined period authenticity, as if viewed through gauze (I think ‘scrim’ is the technical term).

Is grey-green the new sepia, an automatic ageing device, giving a mixture of distance and comfort?  It’s hard to believe that life in 19th-century Britain was so lacking in saturated colours.

The poster montage for Great Expectations, for example, implies that the film is the equivalent of old-fashioned, colour-tinted black-and-white photos.  To a large extent it is, yet somehow it doesn’t seem dated.

Are we, perhaps, heading towards the return of black-and-white movies, even silent ones?  The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) suggests that this might be so.  I hope it reaches these here parts soon!

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