Saturday, September 27, 2008
Review: The Duchess
Last month I posted a review of Amanda Foreman's book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and noted at the end about the film version with Keira Knightley that was to be released soon. On this rainy New York day, I decided to go see the film. My concern from the trailers was that the movie was going to be a pared down version of Foreman's stellar biography, ultimately turning it into a tragic love story. The trailers cite connections with Princess Diana ("there were three people in her marriage"), which is infuriating. The Duchess was her ancestor, but it's a cheap marketing tactic to force a connection that isn't needed. The woman and the film stand on their own rather nicely. But as I suspected, the film did what I feared: excised an ounce of the full story of Georgiana's life, focusing on her sartorial flair, her relationship with her husband and Bess, and her doomed love affair with Charles Grey. They do bring in aspects of her politics and gambling, and they address the few rights women had at the time, but these aspects are minimized. Foreman's book is obviously a superior biographical account. But if you remove Foreman from the equation, you'll be surprised to discover a spectacular film.
Anyone who loves English period films will easily rank this one near the top. The panoramic settings (including Somerset House and Chatsworth) are absolutely gorgeous. The costumes and wigs are sumptuous (more on the costumes below). The acting is in top shape. Ralph Fiennes as the Duke is the perfect antagonist, his desire for a male heir the driving force of his own existence, to the point that he almost cracks under his own determination. His love for his dogs seems to be the only sign of sentience at times (other than his ability to shag any woman he wants), but there is a subtle sense of humanity that does peak out when needed, giving him perhaps a realistic take on what the Duke actually may have been like. Charlotte Rampling as Lady Spencer (Georgiana's mother) is in fine form, forcing her daughter to maintain the respectability and stiff upper lip required of her position. Hayley Atwell is acceptable as Bess Foster, although I would have preferred more drive to her character, although she probably would have stolen the show from Georgiana (and Knightley). Dominic Cooper as Grey is gorgeous, although perhaps a little too hunky for an 18th-century politician.
Knightley steals the show as Georgiana, however. The movie showcases the actress's beauty and presence, and she carries herself, her exquisite gowns, and her wigs and picture hats, with true grace and aplomb. But perhaps Knightley's best parts in this movie are when she doesn't speak, when the camera simply focuses on her facial reactions, and we see a true actress at work. There are scenes in this movie when the camera simply caresses Knightley's face, and you feel her innocence, her love, her anguish, and her pain, in each of these scenes. I wouldn't be surprised if she's given an Oscar nomination for her performance.
The musical score by Rachel Portman is brilliant (I've already downloaded the soundtrack). The atmospheric music reinforces the emotions throughout the movie, and ties the storyline together very well. Portman maintained the period feel by drawing on traditional string instruments, pairing her songs well with selections by Beethoven and Haydn. Finally, the costumes by Michael O'Connor are superb. He also designed the costumes for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I also thought were exquisite. It's one thing to design beautiful historic costumes; it's another to make your audience want to burst through the screen and play dress-up, and so far that's what he's accomplished for me with these two films. I recommend checking out the official website for the movie (http://www.theduchessmovie.com/), where among other things you can view some of O'Connor's costumes and do 360 rotations of them--it's rather cool.