Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Knightley’s Duchess Shines in an Uninspired Period Piece

Last night, after more than willingly being wined and dined, I, in my rather happily besotted state, was introduced to Georgiana, an impeccably dressed, lovely young woman of eighteen years of age who was abundantly pleased and honored to be selected for marriage by the Duke of Devonshire.  Perhaps “honored” isn’t exactly the right word for it: poor Georgiana, after all, was about to enter a formal and loveless marriage to the rather stiff and dull Duke, who would show his two similarly personality-deficient mongrels more affection than he ever would his own wife and children.  Throughout the course of their opulent aristocratic existence, Georgiana would painfully discover the selfishness and desperation of the women of her time; that, in truth, marriage is always a “duty,” never a joy; and that every woman must sacrifice her own happiness for that of her children – who, one day, will inevitably do the same for their own luckless progeny.

If the sentiments and situations of screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Duchess appear all too familiar, that’s because they are.  While we’ve been transported from France to England, and there’s a distinct lack of excessive parties, decadent desserts, and an insanely awesome shoe collection, and certainly everyone’s head remains firmly attached to the body, The Duchess does remind us a bit of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, as well as countless other films that deal with the constricted lives of the softer sex in periods past.  While Saul Dibb’s direction is more classic costume drama in its elegant simplicity than stunning in its stylishness (as Coppola’s work was), his softer and more reserved tone is supported by Gyula Pados’s lush and sweeping cinematography that fittingly reminds us of that acclaimed period piece (Pride & Prejudice) that also boasts the waifish yet sassily strong-willed Keira Knightley.

Knightley's spirit simmers beneath the surface of the refined Duchess. (Photo by Nick Wall)

Knightley

Knightley gives one of her finest and most affecting performances to date as the Duchess of Devonshire (and yes, I’ll go so far as to say her skills here are even more stunning than those she demonstrated in Atonement).  With every personal disappointment and  societal restriction that is forced upon Georgiana, this young and quite talented actress reacts honestly and flawlessly:  composed and refined on the surface, Georgiana’s heartache and fire are kept in check, always subtly visible on Knightley’s delicate porcelain doll face, but never overcoming, and we feel our own guts wrench as we know hers must at such trying times.  Only once does G – as her husband familiarly (and therefore strangely) refers to her –  allow her composure to crumble, and only when her maternal feelings and warmth are questioned, but even then, only for the briefest of moments.  But oh, how we feel her suffering thanks to Knightley’s keenly nuanced depiction of the Duchess’s difficulties.   Ralph Fiennes is the cold, distant, and unfeeling husband who refuses G’s every pleasure – even that of a lover, though he himself takes on a myriad of mistresses.  As per usual, Fiennes doesn’t disappoint, though it would be nice to see him play a role that requires a bit of warmth and emotion at some point.

While the entire cast is lovely and in sync, all offering gratifyingly subtle performances (thank goodness Mama Mia! and History Boys‘s Dominic Cooper – playing G’s lover – is finally given a decent vehicle through which to demonstrate his fine abilities), they can never quite make us forget that what we’re watching, we’ve all seen before.  Not only that, but we’ve seen it done better.  Georgiana Spencer didexist in 18th century England, and she is well-known as being one of the very first celebrities, as well as a politically active feminine figure for her time.  But does the film capitalize on these choice characteristics?  No. Rather, her importance as a British cultural and historical icon (and one who contemporary women could certainly relate to) is offered in the form of only slightly interesting, yet entirely throwaway tidbits that actually, when they appear, are quite irksome as they take away from what the film raises as the main issue at hand: will the spirited G ever leave that dastardly Duke?  As tame as the film’s politics are, it does attempt to make some kind of comment on freedom, which theme is not exactly seamlessly woven throughout the plot, and which never appears to resolve itself through the film’s uninspiring conclusion (if one can call it that).

Despite its lack of fervor in meaning and topicality, The Duchess offers many wonderful moments brimming with quiet, yet deeply felt emotions thanks largely due to the dedicated and sensitive Knightley.  Will Oscar be a-buzzin’ ’round everyone’s favorite British It Girl?  Unfortunately, I think Knightley’s intuitive and moving performance is not flashy enough to draw attention to this quiet film and its creators, but one hopes that it will draw her to films more worthy of her high caliber of talent.

One comment on “Knightley’s Duchess Shines in an Uninspired Period Piece

  1. Becca
    September 18, 2008

    So sad, the film was a disappointment… however, I’m happy to hear that Ms. Knightley lived up to her usual excellence. I adore her :)

    Excellent review!

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This entry was posted on September 18, 2008 by in Film Reviews, Reviews.

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