REVIEW: “The Duchess” (**1/2)

Posted by · 10:53 am · September 8th, 2008

Paramount Vantage\'s The DuchessThere’s a startling scene near the beginning of “The Duchess,” in which the teenaged Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) has intercourse for the first time with her new husband, the much older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Ordered, with dispassionate reserve, to strip naked and lie on the bed, Georgiana trembles with positive terror as her husband enters her with all the wordless efficiency of a man fulfilling a prescribed brief; Knightley’s exquisite face gradually crumbles as it dawns on her that this is how it shall always be.

It’s a brilliantly unsettling bit of visual storytelling — and it’s all the more memorable in retrospect because nothing else in this lavishly appointed historical biopic comes close to matching its emotional honesty or alluring strangeness.

I was never bored watching “The Duchess,” but I was never exactly engaged either. The film has the slick, diverting pull of a glossy magazine article, and goes about that deep. Knightley’s Georgiana is sufficiently sympathetic to carry you with her through the various storytelling hoops, but as the credits rolled, I didn’t feel I knew her at all.

The story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is simple enough. Forced at 17 into a loveless marriage to a frigid aristocrat, she has but one duty to fulfill: provide the Duke with a male heir. As she repeatedly fails to deliver on this “promise,” bearing only daughters, her increasingly cruel husband engages in a series of barely-concealed affairs, the last of which culminates in an awkward ménage à trois with Georgiana’s former confidante, the disgraced Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell). Georgiana, meanwhile, falls in ill-fated love with handsome future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

Even if you don’t know the history, it’s a familiar narrative with a number of clear reference points, both cinematic and historical, from the story of Marie-Antoinette (especially as told in Sofia Coppola’s impressionistic re-imagining) to that of Georgiana’s own great-great-great-great-niece, Princess Diana (the connection to which has been so crassly emphasized in the film’s marketing here in the UK).

The narrative is also a very slender one that requires a rich interpretation of its (fascinating) historical context to avoid devolving into soapy hand-wringing. Disappointingly, this is where the film’s script, co-written by director Saul Dibb, proves critically undernourished. The protagonist’s romantic life is placed front and center, to the detriment of everything else — the complex politics and intricate social and sexual mores of late 18th Century England are painted in vague, Classics Illustrated strokes.

Keira Knightley in The DuchessThis was no doubt a calculated decision in the cause of greater audience accessibility — this is art house cinema in name only — but it serves the character rather weakly. With so little detailing of the social confines holding her back, Georgiana can appear rather shallow and solipsistic at points.

The real-life Duchess of Devonshire was, by all accounts, a complex, feisty woman with strong political affiliations.  But Dibb appears far less interested in the latter than in her skills as a clothes-horse.  We only see her at one political rally during the film, but her status as a style icon and self-styled “Empress of Fashion” is mentioned repeatedly — another way of hammering home the Diana parallel.

It bears mentioning, then, that the clothes in question are spectacular. It’s no backhanded compliment to say that Michael O’Connor’s dazzling costumes are the film’s strongest asset.

Costume dramas frequently prioritize spectacle over personality in their threads, but O’Connor’s creations, sumptuous as they are, are intelligently conceived and sequenced to serve character and atmosphere. The gradually altering colors and silhouettes of her dresses reveal as much about Georgiana’s shifting state of mind as Knightley’s carefully calibrated performance.  O’Connor is surely a shoo-in for Oscar recognition.

This, I sense, is where the film’s awards prospects end, however. There have been some whispers about Keira Knightley making a run for Best Actress, but I can’t see that talk going any further than the Toronto festival.

Keira Knightley in The DuchessNot that she’s bad; as I’ve said already, it’s a perceptive, tightly controlled performance that avoids the shrillness Georgiana could easily invite. (As, with each film, she gains more control over her delicate screen presence, Knightley reminds me increasingly of Joan Fontaine — a less beautiful actress, but one with a similarly brittle nerviness on screen. Hitchcock would have loved her.)

Knightley, however, is hemmed in by the thin, largely reactive nature of her role. If she couldn’t get nominated for a richer, more expansive characterization in “Atonement” (with weaker competition than this year’s bumper crop), it’s difficult to see her making the cut for this.

The rest of the hand-picked cast endure mixed fortunes. As Georgiana’s coolly pragmatic mother, Charlotte Rampling offers the film’s best performance, a subtle, precisely etched study of a woman caught between social custom and maternal protectiveness.

The men fare rather less well. Fiennes’s performance has its admirers, but I am not among them. His arch, bone-dry delivery yields some terrific moments.  When Georgiana’s wig catches fire at a party, he gets to relish the film’s single best line: “Please put out Her Grace’s hair.” But it’s ultimately an overly distancing portrayal, too narrow in its emotional timbre to elicit much understanding in the final act.

As Grey, Cooper’s blank screen presence is even more problematic — his character is so sketchily conceived (on the page as well as in the playing, admittedly) that the dramatic stakes of his doomed relationship with Georgiana are considerably reduced.

And therein lies the problem with the film as a whole; beautifully mounted and superficially compelling as it is, there’s simply no depth of feeling there. From “Dangerous Liaisons” to “The Piano,” the best costume dramas are founded on the tension between the rigidly defined manners of the period and the eternal, visceral human impulses underneath. “The Duchess” is too polite to go there.

For a film founded on the premise that its protagonist was the tabloid celebrity of her era, it could use a bit more lurid, investigative grit.

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5 responses so far

  • 1 9-08-2008 at 11:33 am

    Leone said...

    The one-sheet you’ve referenced is the UK one-sheet for the film. The US version was different and didn’t use that “3 people in the marriage” tagline. The UK distributor also put out a trailer that actually had Princess Diana’s face in it and referenced her quite prominently. The US trailer did not. So perhaps they chose a different path on marketing the film in the UK?

  • 2 9-08-2008 at 11:59 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks Leone — as I’m in the UK, I didn’t realise the US marketing had left out the Diana angle. (If only the Brits had shown similar restraint!)

  • 3 9-08-2008 at 12:46 pm

    Liz said...

    Honestly, can someone tell me why Dominic Cooper is famous? I know he was one of the History Boys, and I’ve never see the play or movie, but he’s been terrible in everything else I’ve seen him in.

    Someone enlighten me, please.

  • 4 9-08-2008 at 12:59 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sorry Liz, can’t help you. The History Boys doesn’t make it any clearer either — dreadful film, and he’s blank as always in it.