The Duchess (2008)

16 Dec

I don't think anyone would disagree that Keira Knightley is a pretty girl, but there's something sort of glorious about her in this film.

I vaguely remember the marketing for “The Duchess.” The advertising I recall seemed to imply that the film was a light romp, a look at the It Girl of generations long gone by, a wispy bit of inoffensive nothing. The problem? Well, deceptive marketing mainly. This film is light-hearted for all of about 20 minutes before settling into a much weightier vibe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I was expecting.

The film charts a storied segment in the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, (Keira Knightley) an 18th century aristocrat married to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), much her senior. Georgiana was not yet 18 when she married the immensely powerful man, yet she is portrayed as intelligent, capable and mature, and perhaps most surprising, willing to acquiesce to all her wifely duties — including overlooking her husband’s blatant unfaithfulness. Her primary duty, though, was to produce a male heir for the Duke, and this function, too, she bore with grace, although she confesses to her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) that the process might be more pleasant if her husband would simply converse with her once in a while.

Georgiana is soon pregnant, but the couple’s joy is tempered when she gives birth to a daughter, and then another. She is also raising one of her husband’s illegitimate daughters as her own. While the Duke grows less and less enchanted with his “damaged” bride, the whole of London society becomes increasingly enamored with her. Her appearances at social events draw reporters and artists seeking to capture her trendsetting style. She is politically outspoken and well-informed, using the goodwill she garners to further her political ideals. When one of the Duke’s dalliances creates a hostile love triangle in the couple’s home, Georgiana is driven to seek comfort in her friendship with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a young politician with no title or money but plenty of ambition and ideals. As their relationship deepens, she realizes she can have passion and love in her life, but at a great cost.

“The Duchess” is a film which is surprising in a number of ways. Firstly, as I previously mentioned, the film is not at all what I thought it was. What I thought was going to be your run-of-the-mill slightly tawdry period romance piece turned out to be more of a piercing look at the private sorrows of a woman, and how her private life was constantly at odds with her public persona. Looking back through some of the press on the film at the time of its release, it’s clear many drew the obvious parallels to another famous Lady Spencer — Diana, who became Princess of Wales. While the stories share some similar details, I found “The Duchess” stands better on its own strengths rather than relying on the continuing popularity of Princess Diana to garner interest.

It is uncommon for a film to so prominently feature the types of grief and guilt that are particular to women: The pain of losing children, the pressure to bear children (much less of a certain sex), the expectation of grace in the face of cruelty, the choice between child and self. While these items are rather too casually brushed over in some instances, that they are dwelled upon at all is something of an anomaly in cinema. It’s particularly shocking how little society has changed, in some ways, in the intervening 200 odd years between the events of this film and today. Women, even prominent, intelligent, powerful women, still face scrutiny based on their child-bearing choices, successes or failures. It’s perhaps a double-edged sword: The role of mother is still revered, but yet women are still subjugated, to an extent, by that precious ability.

I loved the contrast in this scene. It's set in a city street, all stone and square, and the Duchess has these touches of organic wildness in her look -- the fur and feathers on the hat and her unbound hair. Fantastic.

Alas, “The Duchess,” while heavier than your typical period piece, isn’t quite prepared to delve fully into the corners it peeks into, and so it moves on to the more crowd-pleasing tactics of high costumery and predictable bed-hopping, and the latter is where the movie starts to fall apart. Keira Knightley honestly delivers some very good work in this film. I typically find her quite charismatic and likable, but not a particularly strong actress. In “The Duchess,” (which followed on her lovely performance in 2007’s “Atonement”) she again proves she can handle weightier material. Knightley is able to transcend herself and become Georgiana; she conveys the duchess’ complex emotions without uttering a single word. It’s really a fantastic performance right up until the aforementioned bed-hopping. Knightley proved in “Atonement” that she is capable of generating on-screen chemistry, but she fails to produce the same kind of heat with Cooper. Perhaps it’s a fault of the editing or the direction, but the Charles Grey plot arc comes off heavy handed and awkward. His character is introduced at the very start of the film, then promptly forgotten. He remains absent for a sizable chunk of time, then reappears without much ado until there suddenly is ado. Of course we know what will happen between him and Georgiana, but the filmmakers really quash the romantic aspect of the film by not building either the character of Charles Grey or his story arc in any sort of interesting way.

Fiennes is restrained and remarkable as always, but he is so absolutely subdued as the Duke that it becomes difficult to accept certain key facts as the story progresses. I would never suggest Fiennes turned in a poor performance. Rather, I feel his character was mismanaged, which again suggests fault on the part of the director. Saul Dibb, who at the time of directing “The Duchess” had only one other feature film credit to his name, perhaps flounders a bit with the grander stage of this drama. His technique lacks a certain necessary indulgence needed for the genre. The photography is only astounding at times when it should, given its historical basis, wallow in its own sumptuousness. The film comes off a bit reluctant in a way, as if there was a resistance to fully embracing the genre, and that’s a real shame. Georgiana Cavendish seems to have been a larger-than-life sort of individual; it would have been fitting for the film to veer a wee bit off the rails.

The one aspect of the film which does not at all disappoint is the fabulous costume design, which bagged Michael O’Connor a well-deserved Oscar. The level of detail reached with regard to the costuming is jaw-dropping. Every conceivable outfit, gown, undergarment, headdress … you name it, and it’s fantastic. Like her true contemporaries, I found myself eagerly waiting for the Duchess to flit across the screen in her next gorgeous creation, yet the fashions of the film served to augment the story rather than distract from it, an achievement I believe to be a solid assessment of how true artistry in costume design can work with the overall themes of a film.

To make sure we’re all clear here, I’m not judging this movie based on what I thought it would be. Rather, I’m weighing it against what is it and what it could have been. Despite great performances from Knightley and Fiennes (however misguided his may be), this film is just lacking something. Maybe it’s the uninspired look of the film, maybe it’s the lack of chemistry between Knightley and Cooper. I suspect that the film doesn’t do enough to sell me on any one aspect of its plot or its characters, much less the complexities of both character and theme it hints at. Perhaps it’s not one large failing but a rash of small ones that leave “The Duchess” in a bit of an odd position of neither pleasing nor displeasing me. Two stars out of four.

The Duchess“: Rated PG-13. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney and Aidan McArdle. Directed by Saul Dibb. Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Saul Dibb from the book “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire” by Amanda Foreman. Cinematography by Gyula Pados. Costume design by Michael O’Connor. Original music by Rachel Portman.

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