The Good: Decent enough plot, More or less interesting characters, Cinematography, Costumes
The Bad: Moments of character and acting, Overbearing soundtrack
The Basics: Well-directed, generally well-acted and telling a decent, classical story, The Duchess is a surprisingly good period film.
I have not, traditionally, been a fan of Keira Knightley in period pieces. Do not get me wrong; she looks great in a corset. However, when I last saw her in Silk (reviewed here!), I literally fell asleep. Twice. This is a serious strike as I was looking forward to the film and have big respect for its director. In general, I do enjoy period pieces and when I had the chance to take in a screening of Knightley's latest, The Duchess, I was more or less indifferent. I was pleasantly surprised as a result.
Going into a PG-13 movie with Keira Knightley, there are certain things one knows. This will not be one of her movies where she exposes herself (much) and unlike certain other actresses in films set in Britain, she can maintain the accent. But the thing is, for someone who sees a lot of movies and has read a bit of classical British literature, there are seldom surprises for me in this type of period piece. Fortunately for me, The Duchess kept me guessing and it ended before it became the film I had been expecting.
In 1774, Georgiana is simply a girl who is drawing lots for the men who are racing for her and her friends' affection when her mother arranges for her to marry the Duke of Devonshire. Georgiana enthusiastically accepts the proposal and is wedded and after a fairly gruesome consummation, comes to realize that being married to the Duke is more of a political arrangement than anything else. The generally affectless Duke brings his illegitimate daughter into the family and Georgiana grows to love her, even as she's pregnant with her first child for the Duke.
Six years, two healthy girls and two stillborn males later, Georgiana tires some of her husband's infidelities and meets up with the lady Elizabeth Foster, an abused wife of Mr. Foster, with whom she has had three sons. After befriending Georgiana - who has become something of a trendsetter in London's fashion circles - Bess has an affair with the Duke and Georgiana is shocked and deeply saddened. It is at this point that her childhood crush, Charles Grey, comes back into Georgiana's life and her personal and political lives begin to clash.
The Duchess is remarkably straightforward in a lot of ways. This is a very typical and very British drama. There are many of the conceits, like the lecherous husband who wants nothing from the marriage but a male heir, the good-looking, more age-appropriate man for the female lead, and lots of costumes. The costumes in The Duchess look phenomenal, though I cannot speak to how period-correct they actually are. There is undoubtedly an Oscar nomination in the works for Barbara Taylor, the hair stylist; she had quite a bit of work and it paid off consistently throughout the movie. As well, the cinematography is pretty exceptional, though this seems largely to go back to having film in the camera; the sets and settings are ornate and beautiful and well-detailed. This is a visually extraordinary film.
As far as the characters go, there are moments when the movie is stronger and others where it seems a bit tired or tiresome. On of the concepts that was immediately interesting was how eager Georgiana was to be married off. This sets up the initial intrigue of the film when she is excited to learn she is to be married and asks "Does he love me?" At that point, all of the Duke's dialogue revolved around the economics of the arrangement. The Duchess has a decent set-up.
Unfortunately, it also plays too predictably with the old adage "if a gun is introduced in the first act, it must be discharged by the final curtain." In this case, the gun is Charles Grey. The opening to The Duchess is pointless unless Grey pops back up and when he does, the movie is pretty much on a fast countdown to how and when Georgiana and Grey will hook up. But in between, there is a friendship between Elizabeth (Bess) and the Duchess. That friendship takes a turn for the interesting when Bess tries to teach Georgiana that sex can actually be enjoyable. This also results in one of the film's more erotic scenes, though (again, it's PG-13) it hardly reaches into the annals of great lesbian (or curious) scenes. Instead, it treads toward the safe. In other words, this is not like a very similar scene in Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love (reviewed here!), which was not PG-13.
The reason I belabor this is because it seems there are moments when The Duchess is about to take genuine risks in terms of storytelling and sexuality. That potential is quickly quashed, as is the moment when it appears the movie might actually have a love scene where the woman is on top . . . and remains there. Sigh. I suppose we cannot have everything, but there is something particularly banal about Hollywood wherein a woman always seems to end up on her back. That said . . .
The characters are interesting enough to sustain the movie. When Georgiana finds that her marriage is essentially a three-way event, she attempts to make her own version of an indecent proposal, which the Duke flatly turns down. The problem with the character of Georgiana, though, comes exclusively in the form of her relationship with Bess. When she first meets Bess, it is because she notices her husband hitting on Mrs. Foster. The Duchess then encourages Bess, but then seems shocked when Bess and the Duke have an affair (I was more surprised because from the noises coming from behind the door, I would have sworn Bess was making love with another woman). There is a transitional scene missing - it feels - where Duchess Georgiana tries to prevent anything from happening between the Duke and Bess that justifies her sense of betrayal when the Duke has this particular affair.
There is a lot of power exhibited by Duchess Georgiana, though, and that makes the film surprisingly accessible. Outside her being raped by her husband (there's something cringeworthy about The Duchess resurrecting the idea that angry sperm make male heirs) she is a remarkably powerful and empowered woman. She is almost entirely responsible for getting Charles Fox, a Whig, re-elected by showing up at a rally for him. She argues early in the film with Fox on the classifications of freedom and it is memorable. More than the contrived and obvious long walk focused on Knightley's face for a marriage procession (the closest to a BBC conceit the film has) or the British idea of a chase scene where two people stride fast through a massive manor after one another, Georgiana's character is progressive, interesting and fairly groundbreaking for her progressive nature.
In many of my previous reviews of Keira Knightley films, I have likened her to Winona Ryder. In The Duchess, Knightley maintains her character well, though there are a few moments she seems to break through with a smirk or a delivery of a line with something too quick and modern to her delivery. Outside that, she exceeded my expectations, taking the role and playing it with a seriousness of someone like Natalie Portman, but with a consistent accent. This actually might be the best role I have seen her in yet.
On DVD, The Duchess is hardly brimming with DVD extras. There is no commentary track and only three featurettes, one of which does focus on the costumes from the film. The behind the scenes featurette for the film is interesting, but hardly an exceptional use of the medium.
Anyone who likes a good costume period drama will find something to like in The Duchess. Despite some difficulties in the film's middle where the pacing goes dreadfully slow, the film recovers well and, unlike most films with elements of plot and character that are fairly formulaic, this one mostly kept me interested and engaged.
For other period films, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Other Side Of Heaven
The Affair Of The Necklace
For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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