The Duchess (2008)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Period Film, Romantic Drama  |   Release Date - Sep 19, 2008 (USA)  |   Run Time - 110 min.  |   Countries - France , United Kingdom , Italy , United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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The delicious pageantry of the big-hair-and-big-dresses historical drama is a glorious and melodramatic tradition, perfected through years of refinement in the areas of wig-making and bold, sidelong glances. Unfortunately, The Duchess opts out of this tradition, and shoots for an absolutely sober level of realism -- which doesn't make it a bad movie, but doesn't do it many favors either.

The title role is played by Keira Knightley, the go-to girl for the romantic leading lady in period movies (Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Silk, The Edge of Love). Knightley's screen presence evokes passion, romance, and cheek-bony ethereal beauty, and you can see why she ends up playing the lead in so many of these films, but there's a distinction to the kind of period piece that seems to be her forte. After all, it's one thing to play the naïve and soon-to-be heartbroken damsel in a sweeping tale of corsets and desire, and it's another to play Catherine the Great or Elizabeth I.

Knightley's talents certainly lie in the former category, but while she may be no Cate Blanchett, her casting as the trail-blazingly iconic Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire isn't really a bad fit at all. The young actress doesn't bring much gravitas to the role, but you can't say the girl isn't earnest. If there's anything Knightley can do, especially with her copious experience at projecting operatic levels of rapture and tragedy, it's enact emotion. She makes every moment of Georgiana's hope and sadness (not to mention her many moments of total hysteria) play as totally genuine, and for the purposes of this film, that's all she needs to do. Georgiana is an intelligent woman -- and no doubt so is Knightley -- but even the smartest lady in 1774 England couldn't grow into a functioning, emotionally mature adult under the duress of high society's insulated and bizarre rituals and restrictions. That would seem to be the whole point of the story: the tragedy of Georgiana's squandered potential at the hands of a culture, legal system, and husband that treat her alternately like child and a potentially defective Male Heir Maker. The system reduces Georgiana to frustrated screaming again and again.

Ralph Fiennes plays opposite to this, as her husband, the Duke of Devonshire, and the brilliance he brings to this role appears to exceed what was provided for him in the script. Written mainly as a prop in the story's textbook template of the arranged marriage to a powerful guy who sounds great on paper until it turns out he's kind of jerk, Fiennes brings almost absurdly real levels of nuance to the part. Playing neither the Sympathetic Boring Husband nor the Total Raging Bastard (despite scenes where the dialogue adheres strictly to one of these archetypes), Fiennes somehow turns the duke into a fully realized character, a man full of virtues and flaws, who does both touching and unforgivable things, whose behaviors are attributable to both his environment and his quality of character. Sometimes you want Georgiana to stab him in the night with a letter opener and blame it on the houseboy, but most of the time he elicits anger and irritation on a par with a neighbor who buys a German shepherd, leaves it home alone all day, and then bitches and moans about it tearing the house up. You'd like to smack him in the head for never learning that a smart breed of dog will go freaking crazy with nothing to do, and you might not let your kids play in his yard, but you probably won't decide he's evil. He's a negligent cretin, not a black hat villain, and that isn't an easy thing to play.

The only problem is that with everybody being so earnest, things can get really, really flat. The film covers all the classic (which is to say, typical) bases for a movie about a great historical woman (the auspicious arranged marriage that seems awesome until she has to sleep with him, the torrid secret affair with a much hotter guy, the obligate moment when she tells some incredulous advisor that she'd like to nurse her own baby), but these scenes are so tried that, played straight, they somehow seem calculated and oblivious at the same time. Or, alternately, when things in the story gets flat-out ridiculous, it ends up feeling weird and dissonant. It's fair to say these scenes are supposed to evoke whatever Georgiana is feeling, but this can become a real issue when it just doesn't work. And especially when such crazy events are happening as characters are meeting in fields to exchange babies and people's wigs are catching on fire, the movie needs a dash of old-fashioned costume drama stylization. The sauciness usually helps to round out those kinds of wild moments -- the pageantry provides padding, an implicit understanding that such strange moments demand equivocal theatricality -- but sadly, this appears to be an effect that director Saul Dibb was decidedly uninterested in, and that Miss Knightley, bless her heart, does not yet seem to have in her repertoire.