Thursday, October 23, 2008
How many period pieces has Keira Knightley been in now? Even the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films put her in corsets and frumpy dresses. Hot off the heels of the inexplicably lauded “Atonement,” Knightley signed up for yet another fashion show as film, this time about the story of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire.
“The Duchess” is a look back on a simpler time, a proper time, where proper people of proper stock received proper education and properly traded their proper daughters to other families for powerful and proper marriages as if they were property. Georgiana is no exception, and at the start of the film she is betrothed to William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Her initial excitement at her rise in social rank gives way to a growing discomfort with her dispassionate husband, a seemingly dull man whose only interest is a male heir. As the film progresses, his distant nature gradually shifts into a monstrous smoldering, turning to mistresses to provide him a son and essentially imprisoning his wife in their home.
The acting is uniformly strong. Knightley, who thus far has relied on little more than her attractiveness to get by in these films, captures the feel of the character perfectly; she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders as she must deal with her husband’s cruelty, her friend’s betrayal, and the constant attention of the other nobility, whom she must wine and dine incessantly. She seems constantly on the verge of collapse, until she must put on a happy face for her guests, and Knightley hits all the right notes. Ralph Fiennes is a perfect fit as the Duke; there’s just something a bit intimidating about the man. When he smiles at you and talks you get the feeling that, at any moment, some hunchbacked minion is going to sneak up from behind and knife you. Properly, of course. He is never loud, nor scheming, but you come to fear this man over the course of two hours. A host of supporting actors also turn in strong work, with nods going to Hayley Atwell as Georgiana’s best friend and William’s mistress and Simon McBurney as Charles Fox, a leader of the Whig party.
Unfortunately, Saul Dibb’s direction turns what might have been an interesting biopic and one of the better period pieces of recent years into an overlong, boring mess. If I had to spitball a number, I’d say at least half the shots of the film are close-ups on Knightley, which makes sense in a way because the film is basically about how everyone revolved around her except her husband. However, this seems less an artistic and thematic choice and more an excuse to say “Hey, look how pretty Keira Knightley is.” Well done, Mr. Dibb. I can only pray the reserves of movie magic were not expended in this effort. When the camera does move to follow someone, it fails to capture the scope of the time. This was a time of rampant excess, when palaces and dresses and hairstyles and meals were so huge they blinded the nobility to the actual state of their nations. Why is so little shown to us then?
The stated running time of the film is 110 minutes, but it feels an hour longer. Uninteresting scenes drag on far too long, occasionally leading to a rewarding payoff from the actors but usually just adding in some absurd dialogue. Also, why do the women in these films always seem surprised by how sexist the world of European nobility is? I’m beginning to think that all these films are about time travel, because surely a noblewoman raised in high society would know exactly what it had in store for her and would stop acting so damned shocked that she has no say, regardless of title. I agree that the sexism of the time- or now- is deplorable, but let the audience register its own disbelief of the etiquette and social mobility rather than make anachronisms and fools out of characters so we have someone to relate to. This film had promise, but snail-like pacing has derailed a good premise before, and much that “The Duchess” has to offer is spoiled because of it.