The Duchess
Director: Saul Dibb. Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle. Screenplay: Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen and Saul Dibb (based on the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman).


Photo © 2008 Paramount Vantage/Pathé/BBC Films
As can only be expected in a film like The Duchess, the umpteenth retread of The Gilded Palace as Woman's Prison, many of its enticements have nothing specifically to do with cinema. The gowns, with all sorts of complex paneling and embellishment in subtly unusual colors, would be just as marvelous in a museum. The wigs, while occasionally doffed for simple dramatic impact, are so grandiose that they steal the movie. Twice, in fact: once when Keira Knightley's Georgiana, the predictably impetuous Duchess of Devonshire, emerges on a landing above a crowd of party guests with a three-storey ostrich feather woven into her mound of fake coiffure, and once when a sozzled and outwitted Georgiana stumbles into a blazing candelabra, leading to the Duke of Devonshire's memorable request, "Will someone please put out my wife's hair?" Ralph Fiennes as the Duke is quite crafty with his choked attitude of introversion and alienation—the only way, possibly, to unify a character who switches tempers as often as this one does—and his dry, disaffected reading of "Will someone please put out my wife's hair" makes the utterance even more indelible. He even, if briefly, raises the possibility that The Duchess has a sense of humor, an altogether surprising thing, since Fiennes often looks more aware than anyone that The Duchess hasn't got much depth or dramatic impetus, as though he's really just waiting for Steven Spielberg to spot him in his white perruque and realize how great he'd look as the star of a George Washington miniseries on HBO.

What else can I tell you? The sets aren't as ornate as you might be expecting, though it's frankly refreshing to see a picture like this escape the trap of outlandish clutter, and even if cinematographer Gyula Pados has no idea what to do with her wide frame beyond recycling the oldest clichés (blunt symmetries, Keira-in-the-middle, long dining room tables with warring spouses on either end), her lensing isn't ghastly and jaundiced as it was in last year's Evening. I often appreciated the dull, limp quality of the light, especially in all of its hopeless, stunted climbs toward the impossibly high ceilings. I did spot one moment when Knightley seemed actually to have had her skin bronzed to help The Duchess lunge at a copper, evening-candlelight effect that Pados' camera just wasn't up to. But hey, not every movie can be Barry Lyndon.

There's a conceptual bridge here, a concept of flatness, that names as well as anything what The Duchess has going for it. Like last year's Becoming Jane, and this film could just as easily have been titled Becoming Georgiana, The Duchess is less self-adoring than period pictures of its ilk usually are. It doesn't feel like a gleaming advertisement for its own props and baubles, which makes the film feel less hypocritical when it asserts how arid this world really is for Georgiana and how imprisoned she is within a narrow set of choices. The actors don't strike, for the most part, the kinds of postures that bespeak how long they've been studying the affectations of the period; when Fiennes plays with his dogs or Knightley goes rambling around her hallways or Charlotte Rampling sits on a cushion somewhere, waiting for someone to open some massive door, the moments operate as legitimate character beats rather than arbitrary dioramas. We feel a bit of what living in a house of this size, in this era, might actually have been like, and even better, we hear it. I wish I could credit the film for articulating any clear spatial arrangements inside the premises, but the sound team has done an excellent job of calibrating dim, damp echoes of the conversations and altercations happening a few rooms away, and of muffling sounds like slamming doors and clacking shoes that it must have been tempting to dial up as lazy scene accents. The Duchess, which also forebears from a lot of slavering close-ups on décor or jewelry or food, mostly plays honestly with its project of making real, lonely, and borderline-mundane the life story of a fabulously rich icon of fashion, and it doesn't allow anything in the movie, not even a love-triangle involving Hayley Atwell's Elizabeth Foster or a Harlequin B-plot with Dominic Cooper's Charles Grey, to overwhelm that general air, muted but palpable, of limitation and stasis.

Which is the generous way of saying that The Duchess never brings its characters to satisfying life, and never essays its own plot with anything approaching sinew, steel, or stitch. Sometimes the film just seems tired, as when it ruffles up some early interest in Georgiana's liberal political impulses but then just throws them in a hamper. From then on, the triple-authored screenplay only hauls out this information when Georgiana's political scruples are clearly meant as a non-sequitur proof that she's a good-hearted gal, deserving of more respect and better sex. Director and co-scripter Saul Dibb also includes an early sequence when Atwell's Elizabeth tries to loosen up Georgiana's sexuality by kissing her back and caressing her flesh, while imploring her friend to imagine that it's Charles who is groping her. Credit The Duchess for being more moved by the betrayal of a crucial friendship than by the foundering of a standard-issue sexual liaison, but why conjure up such strong sapphic overtones if you're just going to toss them aside? That Atwell, who keeps popping up in everything lately, has yet to betray any particular gift for screen acting only compounds the handicap of her abbreviated role. That the young stallion Cooper feels like the most dated presence in the film, like a rougher Robert Taylor or a more wall-eyed Tyrone Power, is a peculiar conundrum; casting a slightly older actor might readily have solved it. That the Duke is actually surprised that a frame as reedy as Knightley's isn't a flawless machine for delivering strapping sons is a real head-scratcher. Trying to imagine a robust little heir bounding out of this shark's-fin body is like trying to imagine a beachball suddenly announcing itself through your mail slot. The narrative is floss throughout, frayed to greater and lesser extents at different times, as if Dibb conceived of the right, poignant atmosphere for a glimpse at rarefied 18th-century life but barely read the Cliff's Notes for whose life he was staging, or why he was doing it. C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Art Direction: Michael Carlin; Rebecca Alleway
Best Costume Design: Michael O'Connor

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Ralph Fiennes

British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Costume Design

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