Director: Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy)
Writers: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb
Producers: Michael Kuhn, Gabrielle Tana
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 110 min
While sitting in a theater full of seniors waiting for the most recent Keira Knightley vehicle The Duchess, to begin, I had a thought: in 20 years, no one is going to want to see a costume drama. Granted, it was an early Sunday morning screening that even I, a morning person, had a hard time getting up for but I find it hard to believe that the majority of today’s teens will grow into adults that will appreciate the drawing room dramas. I hope my observation is incorrect, I love nothing more than to curl up with a gorgeously rich costume drama and although of late they appear to be making a minor comeback, I expect the run won’t continue for much longer.
For this trip down history lane, British helmer Saul Dibb takes us to 18th century England where at 17, a young Georgiana Spencer (the initial marketing for the film ensured that people remember that the late Princess Di is a relation) is married off to the Duke of Devonshire. At a time when women were little more than dowries and a means to keep the blood line flowing, the Duchess of Devonshire became a celebrity and a kind of early “People’s Princess.” People loved the young woman with a keen fashion sense and good looks and her appearance at political rallies brought out crowds more interested in sneaking a peek at the celebrity than in the politics themselves. But as expected, nothing is easy behind closed doors. She suffered at the hands of a husband whose only interest was siring a son and the loveless marriage weighed heavily on her. For good measure, add in mistresses, illegitimate children and the fact that this is a small bit of England’s scandalous past and you have a sure fire hit. Unfortunately for Dibb, there are a number of missed opportunities.
The Duchess could have been a melodramatic mess (must like The Other Boleyn Girl earlier this year) but to Dibb’s credit, his film is much more reserved. Though there are some glaringly obvious missed opportunities (further exploration of Georgiana’s political career, how she ingratiated herself to the people) Dibb’s film is saved by the filmmaker’s ability to hold back on the grandiose and letting the characters and situations speak for themselves. The film is never bombastic or showy and though it is beautiful to behold, it does so in an understated manner which is eerily reminiscent of Joe’s Wright’s work. That high praise does come with the reservation that he does not show Wright’s flare for capturing emotion through small, unexpected actions (the stretching of a hand) but Dibb knows how take full advantage of his sets, costumes and most importantly, his actors.
This is Keira Knightley’s film and she takes full advantage. With every new role Knightley further cements her ability to carry a film and she has yet to be better. Her portrayal of Georgiana could easily have gone south but she has an air of dignity and maturity that comes through in the role and which makes her seem older and wiser than her years. Knightley is particularly good at conveying emotion through her eyes and facial expressions and Dibb takes full advantage of that strength. It will be interesting to see if this streak extends beyond the period dramas but the young actress is building a fantastic catalog of films. By her side is the great Ralph Fiennes who takes his small role and creates a thoroughly unlikable character while never being despicable. He is simply a man of power used to getting his way and though he’s easy to dislike, mostly because the film is less concerned with his character and more interested in showing him as the catalyst of Georgiana’s grief, he brings an unexpected humanity to the character. Alongside the leads is a cast of very talented supporting actors including Charlotte Rampling as the Spencer matriarch responsible for the marriage, Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey, the object of Georgiana’s passion, and Hayley Atwell as Bess Foster, the Duke’s mistress.
This is no Catherine Breillat period drama. The Duchess plays it safe, skirting the moral dilemmas and double standards by simply glossing over them and showing them as the norm of the period. The film does occasionally try to make a larger statement about women’s rights and the difficulties of celebrity but it does so quietly and the attempt is barely registered. This is also a film full of near misses. So much of it could have gone wrong but the combination of good direction and strong performances keeps it together.
A film rich in production value (the costumes will easily garner an award nomination if not a win), acting and direction which doesn’t try to be smarter than it’s script, The Duchess is solid entertainment; a popcorn film for the romantically inclined.
Click “play” to see the trailer:
The Duchess Full UK Trailer