Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The Duchess **1/2
Director: Saul Dibb
Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes
Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling
In the year 1774 Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) was married to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes).
After becoming Duchess, Georgiana became one of the most influential women of her time. She was a style and fashion icon who also took political matters at hand, despite the fact that women weren't allowed to vote, and supported the American Revolution among other controversial causes.
She also had to endure her husband's distance as he demanded a male heir from her, his constant infidelities and eventually even had to acknowledge his mistress, Lady Bess Foster (Atwell), as part of their family.
Georgiana eventually took a lover as well: Earl of Grey, and eventual Prime Minister and famous tea flavor, Charles (Cooper). If this all rings a bell it must be added that Georgiana was Lady Diana Spencer's great-great-great-great aunt.
The genealogical link invites us to wonder if the film's intention is to point out the Spencers bad luck with royal marriages, lead us to sigh about how little has changed in the role of women or just serve as an E! True Hollywood Story, two centuries in the making.
In what might be as close to a Princess Di biopic as we're getting any time soon, Dibb's adaptation of Amanda Foreman's biographic novel, is a gorgeously designed, fascinating, albeit aimless, portrait of womanhood in both the realms of royalty and society.
Since the characters are at the service of a director and a screenplay who have no real idea what is it they want to say, it's amazing how they deliver such amazing performances.
Knightley, who just keeps getting better and better, infuses Georgiana with a wit and charm beyond her time.
Barely a child when the film starts, by the conclusion she has evolved into a woman who's lived through more than what is expected of someone her age. The screenplay suggests that she was highly effective as a political advocate, but the only evidence we get of this is in the defiance Knightley gives Georgiana.
The film rarely shows us episodes outside her immediate space (Knightley is featured in almost every scene) and because of this our impressions of the character rely on some title cards, other characters' dialogues and mostly Knightley who perhaps doesn't need external help to make us perceive what everyone else saw in the Duchess.
Perhaps the most affecting quality about her character is her palpant disappointment when she realizes that her fairy tale is over. "Does he love me?" she asks to her mother (Rampling) after she learns of her bethrotal. The glow in her eyes as painful as her neglect to wonder if she loves him back.
Her change can be detected years later when she cynically agrees "how foolish of me to think I could converse with my husband", with this Knightley disappears as Georgiana emerges.
Atwell is wonderful as Lady Bess, because in all her Pompadour glory she makes it impossible for us to completely hate her, somehow we even begin to understand her choices.
But perhaps the character that stays with you the most is the Duke. The person we were supposed to see as a monster becomes in Fiennes expert hands as much a tragic figure as the heroine.
At film's start the Duke barely says a word and moves in a predatory way. During the honeymoon scene as he disrobes his wife he wonders why are their clothes so complicated. When she suggests that fashion is the only way left for women to express themselves something in his eyes suggests a sudden sadism in getting rid of them and just getting to the act.
We later begin to grasp the fact that his monstruosity was in fact that of a complete generation in which men were brought up to believe in mysogyny (with much support from the women themselves it must be said).
Fiennes mannerisms let us see that this is a man who finds it easier to express love to his dogs than to creatures he grew up thinking were meant to procreate.
"I love you in the way I understand love" he says to his wife and in one moment of revelation the film turns upside down making us wonder how much, if, either of them are to blame for the unhappiness in their lives.
Fiennes barely needs to speak to provide a touching portrait of why the political currents mentioned through the film are needed in the world.
Their characters are reminders of the need to evolve, which is why it's sad that "The Duchess" tries so hard to be so much at once without being anything.
When Georgiana attends the theater, a group of men sketch her picture which later appears in the papers as if they were winking "Hello" and "People" tabloid-ness from the screen.
We see little of what it is that made these people who they were and in the end the film never does justice to the historical people and to the absolutely brilliant actors playing them.