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3 reviews, 1 rating

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Duchess, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Big Girls Do Cry"
2 stars

“The Duchess” is essentially the “Kill Bill” of historical romantic melodramas. If you can name a plot development or character type familiar to this particular subgenre, it can be found somewhere in this film and if it isn’t, it will most likely turn up in the deleted scenes section of the DVD. The trouble is that instead of trying to find a new spin for these well-worn elements that might help bring a breath of fresh air to the proceedings, it simply gives us the same old stuff that we have seen in countless other movies of this type over the years in much better movies.

Keira Knightley, perhaps inevitably, stars as Georgiana Spencer and when we first meet her in 1774, she is a 16-year-old daughter of a prominent British family with high spirits, a more-than-obvious crush on longtime friend Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) and all the idealistic notions about romance that girls of that age normally carry. While she is frolicking around in the garden with Grey and their friends, however, her more pragmatic mother (Charlotte Rampling, perhaps inevitably) is making arrangements for her to marry the powerful William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, perhaps inevitably). Despite the arranged nature of their union, Georgiana is still idealistic enough to believe that true love will inevitably develop between them and is therefore shocked to discover that outside of the occasional bout of brief and vaguely brutish coitus, the Duke shares more warmth, interest and intimacy with his ever-present dogs than with his ever-present wife. When it becomes obvious that he is fooling around on the side with practically every chambermaid in the area--he even goes so far as to insist that Georgiana raise the young daughter that result from one such union as her own when the birth mother dies--she is distraught and horrified to discover that the Duke’s only real interest in her is her ability to provide a male heir, a task that she keeps failing at by providing either healthy girls or stillborn boys, and that even her own mother believes that she should just overlook the cruelties and infidelities and focus on producing a male child.

Hoping to distract herself from the turn that her life has taken, Georgiana tries a couple of new things to bring some excitement into her life. Noticing the popularity that she has attained amongst the people because of her beauty and keen fashion sense, representatives of the struggling Whig party ask her to publicly campaign on behalf of their candidates, one of whom just happens to be none other than her old pal Charles. On a personal level, she strikes up a friendship with Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) and when she discovers that her new pal is bereft of housing because of the machinations of her rotter ex-husband, she convinces the Duke to allow her stay on indefinitely with them. Proving that no good turn goes unpunished, the Duke quickly makes Elizabeth his mistress and sets her up in the house permanently as part of a royal ménage a trois (or cinq, if you include the dogs). After finally bearing a son (the result of a nasty bit of marital rape), Georgiana decides that it is now only fair for her to take on a lover as well and runs into the arms of the still-smitten Charles, campaigning with him by day and canoodling with him by night. Alas, what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander and the Duke becomes enraged at Georgiana’s activities and maneuvers to put a stop to her example of true love once and for all.

As I said earlier, there is nothing in “The Duchess” that hasn’t been seen in the countless other historical melodramas that crop up at awards season every year. The problem with this one is that it never figures out a way of looking at the material in a fresh manner in the way that Sofia Coppola enlivened her brilliant take on “Marie Antoinette” with girlish energy, cannily chosen pop music and a narrative approach that eschewed the big picture to offer a more nuanced vision of what life in the court of Versailles might have been like as seen through the eyes of a young girl who was unexpectedly dropped into the lap of luxury with no real idea of what was going on in the world around her. What is strange about “The Duchess” and its refusal to break free and do something unique is that the material has a couple of elements that could have easily been used as a springboard for just such an approach. For example, the film could have been used to examine the political process and how popular figures can influence matters of state when they choose to make their voices heard , a conceit that has plenty of parallels with the current political climate both here and abroad, but outside of seeing her offering up a few glib remarks at a couple of rallies, we never get a real taste of Georgiana’s celebrated gift for politicking and her ability to sway a crowd. Then there is the fact that Georgiana Spencer was an ancestor of Princess Diana and that many key aspects of their lives (such as their popularity with the people, their loveless marriages and their doomed love affairs) are strikingly similar. And yet, outside of pointing out the most obvious parallels, director Saul Dibb never does anything significant with this aspect as well--he is more concerned with layering his characters in elaborate wigs and period finery than in making them into flesh-and-blood people that we might be interested in.

As a result of this, viewers are left with the vaguely depressing sight of a bunch of gifted actors standing around looking uncomfortable either from the ornate outfits they are wearing or the lack of any dramatic meat in the scenes they have been asked to enact. I am a huge fan of Keira Knightley and while she is pretty much the perfect choice for the role of Georgiana, the lack of anything for her to do except bemoan her fate while clad in a series of elaborate outfits must have come as big of a shock to her as the loveless nature of Georgiana’s marriage must have been to her. She does what she can but while her spirit and beauty are enough to goose things along early on, she seems as let down by the screenplay in the later scenes as we are. As for Ralph Fiennes, this is the kind of role that he could have played in his sleep and at certain points, it seems as if he did just that. I know that he is supposed to be a cad and a lout throughout, but did have to come across as such a boring cad and lout? He comes across as such a one-note character that Elizabeth’s willingness to jeopardize he friendship with Georgiana makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. As for the other characters, they are barely sketched in at all and seem to appear only to provide costume designer Michael O’Connor with additional bodies on which to drape his elaborate finery.

If you are a stone-cold fanatic for this type of historical melodrama--the kind who pretty much wholeheartedly adores each and every movie of its kind without the slightest reservation--you are probably going to love “The Duchess” because there is a very good chance that every single thing that you have ever loved about this kind of filmmaking can be found at some point during its two-hour running time. However, if you aren’t the kind of devotee who will swallow any film of this type without hesitation simply because it is part of a favorite genre, you are likely to grow bored and restless after a while when it becomes painfully clear that it has no intention of doing anything that you haven’t seen done better a dozen times before.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17034&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/26/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-Sep-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Dec-2008


  DVD: 28-Dec-2008

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