October 09, 2008

The Duchess

The Other, Other Boelyn Girl

Grade: B –

Director: Saul Gibb

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, and Hayley Atwell

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Why can’t we let Diana, Princess of Wales, rest in peace?

Other than in the minds of movie studio bean counters, there is little perceptible sales hook for The Duchess apart from the distant family relation between the late Diana and Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th-century Duchess of Devonshire. Both women married young into royalty, suffered unhappy marriages, enjoyed great popularity among the masses, and died prematurely. Ooh, spooky.

Never mind that Diana plays no role whatsoever in this adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s corset-ripper. Marketers have still subtly pushed the Di angle: Early trailers for the film appropriated Diana’s image and declared “History repeats itself,” while one ad poster paraphrases her familiar lament, “There were three people in her marriage.”

The always fetching Keira Knightly again reaches for period prestige as the beautiful, charismatic Georgiana, whose mother (Charlotte Rambling) lassoes her into a semi-arranged marriage to Ralph Fiennes’ emotionally distant Duke of Devonshire. From the jump, the three-headed screenplay follows the Palace Melodrama™ blueprint: an unhappy matrimony; difficulty siring a male scion; husband takes a mistress; spurned wife takes a younger hunky lover, who she is eventually forced to relinquish. In varying combinations, they are the identical elements comprising the narratives to cinematic forerunners from The Private Life of Henry VIII and Anne of the Thousand Days to Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, and The Other Boelyn Girl.

Judged in a vacuum, The Duchess is engaging and mildly entertaining based chiefly on the quality of its cast. Knightly is the film’s steady, slinky center, but Fiennes steals his every scene as the portrait of passive aggression. The Duke is hardly a sympathetic figure; indeed, quite the opposite is true. In many ways, he is just as captive as Georgiana to the strictures of privilege and a hierarchical social structure. He marries Georgiana out of practicality but falls in love with Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), even moving her into the palace alongside his wife, out of a craving for passion and companionship. Indeed, “Bess” gives a persuasive argument justifying her affair with the Duke and conniving betrayal of Georgiana as the only means at her disposal to gain custody of her three children from her abusive husband.

Most regrettable is that Georgiana’s renowned political activism – at a time when women’s suffrage was still over a century away – is relegated to a mere backdrop for her romance with MOP and future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Director Saul Dibb consigns Georgiana to the status of a victim ultimately left to compromise happiness for her husband’s half-hearted offer of “normalcy.”

In lieu of tawdry love triangles and sudsy intrigue, The Duchess could have sounded the more feminist note of a sophisticated woman ahead of her time. Even Georgiana’s infamous, raucous all-night partying could have been couched as headstrong grabs at elusive independence. Wait a sec, that sounds just like…

Neil Morris

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