Sunday, September 07, 2008

THE DUCHESS - hollow

I came to Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, as someone passionately interested in the politics of the late 18th century - particularly the relationship between Fox and Pitt the Younger, and the impact of the French revolution on British political culture. I was drawn to the book because of Amanda Foreman's thesis that Georgiana, as wife of a powerful Whig patron, had a profound influence of the role of women in electioneering, by deliberately exploiting her influence as a woman of fashion.

I was far less interested in the social history of Georgiana. Yes, it is tragic that she was trapped in a loveless marriage, legally her husband's property and valued only as a means to produce an heir. But this is the history of many women before the late twentieth century and one might as well read THE FORSYTE SAGA or histories of Marie-Antoinette. That Georgiana, like Marie-Antoinette, masked her troubles at the gaming tables was also not especially interesting to me. I found it far more fascinating that men who would rule the country and its finances, such as Fox, would game all night and politick all day.

It seemed to me that the biography sold because of readers' prurient interest in the fact that the Duke of Devonshire kept his mistres, the Duchess' best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, in the same house as his wife, apparently with his wife's consent. This new film panders to that prurience, especially in its ill-judged marketing campaign.

By stripping away the social and political context - the gambling, the significance of the electioneering, the profound disruption of revolutionary politics - the film becomes a mono-dimensional romantic drama. Naive young Georgiana is excited to make a dazzling marriage into the very pinnacle of society. But her husband is uncommunicative and, given her failure to produce a male heir, disrespectful. He callously keeps his lover, her best friend, in their house(s). And when Georgiana finds some happiness with her lover, the Duke forces her to renounce him and their love-child, or to give up her legitimate children. Georgiana does the honourable thing - after all, this is a woman so maternal that she has raised the Duke's illegitimate child as her own.

This hard-boiled story was not enough to satisfy me. The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is a void - a misogynistic adulterer who communicates nothing. The mistress (Hayley Atwell) is insufficiently drawn and given insufficient motive. She knives her best friend so as to see her children. Very well. But Atwell is given little scope to make her seem sympathetic or even interesting. And she and Fiennes have no sexual chemistry. The Duchess (Keira Knightley) is again rather one-dimensional. Stripped of her gambling addiction, and made to renounce her lover for the noblest of reasons, she is so virtuous as to be uninteresting. That said, Keira Knightley gives a nuanced performance that brings her to life more than one could've expected given the script. This is a good performance. It's not, let's say right away, Oscar-worthy. Sadly, Dominic Cooper is rather out of his depth as her lover, Grey. He lacks the gravitas to play a potential Prime Minister, and speaks with a pronounced Estuary accent.

Will the film get away with the hollowness and thinness at its centre? Perhaps. Audiences will wallow in its lush period settings and handsome costumes. Charlotte Rampling gives a fine cameo performance as the Duchess' mother and Simon McBurney is typically captivating as Fox. Still, this could have been a far more substantial film, either in terms of content (if they had tackled the politics and gambling head on), or in terms of the visual style (if they had taken a more daring approach, as with Sophia Coppola's MARIE-ANTOINETTE.)

THE DUCHESS is on release in the UK. It is released in the US on September 19th; in Hong Kong on October 1st; in Australia on October 2nd; in France on November 12th; in Israel on November 13th; in Belgium on December 3rd; in Italy on December 23rd; in Finland on January 9th and in the Netherlands on January 15th.

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