Release Date: 16th March 2009
First off, an admittance- THE DUCHESS is not strictly what Id call my type of film- not as an expression of my innate chauvinism I hasten to add- but my commitment to the medium and my vociferous intention to watch EVERY film in existence overrule even the most determined of resolutions. Besides, it has Ralph Fiennes in it and that more than makes up for the presence of the arse-inflating dresses and frankly monumental hair that goes hand in hand with period drama.
The best thing I can say about THE DUCHESS is that it manages to offer something new to the period drama genre- the muted palette is somewhat atypical, evoking far more grit, and probably symptomatic of director Saul Dibb’s darker early career (BULLET BOY and TV documentary EASY MONEY were hardly Disney-like).
Nor does THE DUCHESS flounder in antiquated ideologies too much: although the setting and the sensibilities are historical, the themes of romantic intrigue, celebrity and the struggle for personal freedom and expression are timeless. There is also of course an underlying current of female empowerment- the exchanges between Bess and Georgiana regarding sex for pleasure; Georgiana’s reluctance to accept men as her intellectual superiors, and her own adultery with Dominic Cooper’s Lord Charles Grey.
Even the laziest of reviews would mention the parallels between Kiera Knightley’s duchess and our own People’s Princess Lady Di, so Ill keep it to a minimum: basically the comparisons are inevitable- the detached apathetic husband, the struggle to assert her own identity in the face of stifling conventions and the adoration of the fashion-hungry masses. Of course there are no obvious indications in the film of the parallel story of Diana- which would have lent an uncomfortable bitter taste to the whole thing- but there were enough hints in the pre-cinematic publicity campaign to make them stand out anyway. It’s like an elaborate game of spot the difference in which any hint of richness of plot or substance them become completely irrelevant- the image of Lady Diana cast over the film in the same unnecessary way in which it overshadowed the trailer. Relevance to the audience is one thing, but this tawdry affair is just beyond the acceptable mark.
At the final stage of analysis, this story requires neither the biographical details, nor the period setting: the most important idea within it is what was chosen as the tag-line to its posters “There were three people in her marriage”, and that is hardly a new idea. The real-life figures behind the characters serve only to furnish a typical destructive love triangle tale, and you get the impression that there could have been infinite possible settings and infinite possible characters for it. We can only hope the decision to make this film was not borne out of a cynical, if slightly belated, attempt to capitalise on the continued intrigue surrounding Georgiana’s more famous descendant. If that tag-line and the trailer are anything to go by, my worst fears may well be realised.
It is remarkable that Hollywood continues to churn out monarchy friendly movies, considering how few good words seem to be inspired by the subject nowadays- but then, on closer inspection THE DUCHESS is not as overtly invested in its political side as first appears. The focus upon Georgiana’s status as an important political figure is steadily diminished in favour of her chaotic romantic entanglements with Charles Grey and her abusive, terse husband William Cavendish (played exceptionally by Ralph Fiennes). A little more sense of the duchess’ political relevance, and her undoubted symbolic power might well have been more enriching- although the romantic and emotionally fraught scenes allow Knightley to show off some acting skills I wouldn’t have thought possible after THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBEAN trilogy.
Evidently, Kiera Knightley is not my favourite actor- aside from LOVE ACTUALLY and ATONEMENT to a lesser extent, I find her difficult to watch- a fact not helped by her near-painful looking thinness in THE DUCHESS. The slightness and frailty of her frame are simply too at odds with the grandeur of her costumes and the enormity of her hair, making her appear worryingly skeletal, and far too youthful to make the supposed age of her character even remotely believable. This is rather a shame considering how impressive her emotive and tense performance is otherwise- especially when she is forced to give up the bastard son of her dalliance with Charles Grey to her lover’s family on the orders of the Duke. I still cannot get over the fact that she gurns throughout every movie, affecting a lock-jaw-like expression that makes her chin epically stick out: I wait with baited breath at the possibility of her and Daniel Craig having some kind of grotesque face-off in some near-future movie.
Knightley’s youthful appearance is not the only thing standing against any concrete belief in her character, there is also an inherent lack of progression that hampers her performance: although littered with emotionally poignant sequences, the film fails to chart Georgiana’s growth in response to them. A more pronounced focus upon the real Duchess’ spiralling addictions, for gambling and drugs most obviously, in line with the reality of Georgiana’s real life- THE DUCHESS annoyingly presents these addictions as the occasional flutter and indiscretion. Personally I felt it would have been preferable to concentrate on her development and her attraction to vice as a consequence of her frustrated relationships and crushed cry for individual freedom from naive, idealised teenager to adored social icon through to embittered but resolute mother. As it was, the end seemed a little rushed- although to be fair had it continued at the same pace as the rest of the film I may still be watching it now- and the final revelation that Georgiana was doomed to an unfulfilled life passes as a footnote. Even Knightley’s reaction to Cooper’s character announcing his engagement is uncharacteristically understated in the context of the rest of the film
Want a reason other than Knightley to watch THE DUCHESS? Look no further than the measured and mesmerising performance by Ralph Fiennes; continuing the fine work he always brings to his roles. His truly is the perfect portrayal of passive aggression; just as his roles in RED DRAGON and IN BRUGES were epic embodiments of psychosis- and he manages to inspire a loathing even in me for the particular brand of masculinity that is so vilified in the film. The scene in which he rapes Georgiana in response to her fatal admittance of her feelings for Grey is particularly difficult to watch, and it is a remarkable achievement that the effect is not tempered in any way by the lack of visual evidence. Knightley’s screams combined with Hayley Atwell’s guilt-ridden reactions are enough to evoke sufficient repulsion for what is happening behind the closed door: that the duchess subsequently becomes pregnant with his obsessively-sought heir, and is thus rewarded financially presses the abhorrence further.
I can’t claim that I hated THE DUCHESS- it simply inspired very little in me; beyond an appreciation for the exquisite photography work and the inevitably proficient costume design. But then these are the staples of the genre, any period picture that fails in either of those realms falls at the first hurdle.
Had there been the same kind of focus lavished upon the script and the direction of THE DUCHESS it might have been a far better final product: as it is, it lacks sufficient substance or complexity to be really accomplished, and frustratingly hints at a potential that might have been realised it Saul Dibb had taken a few more risks. Yes it’s beautiful- Dibb clearly knows the techniques of aesthetic film-making- but it just isn’t memorable, and I can’t help but think the director is playing with a genre that doesn’t wholly suit him.
A number of fairly standard Behind the Scenes featurettes, some Deleted Scenes, but no commentary to speak of- which I must confess to be rather relieved about. Like the pre-release publicity the featurettes are littered with references to Lady Diana, again reiterating the audience’s supposed need for a modern analogy to understand anything. Do studios really have that much contempt for the punters?
This article was first posted on March 17, 2009