PSA: The Duchess (2008), or Adventures In Extreme Mismarketing

30 01 2009
Period Drama PASSION

Now Keira, what we want in this scene is Period Drama PASSION!

Bonjour, mon amies! Welcome to another installment of the PSA, my own Public Service Announcement, letting you in on what I have found to be good, and what I have found to be, um, not so good. Now, before we get to the review, let me just say something about period pieces, in particular Elizabethan, Georgian, or Regency Era dramas. I have watched  number of these and I have come to the conclusion that they are indeed a mixed bag. It seems that half of the time they are interesting and pose some merit to the art, and the other half of the time they are limp costume dramas with no bite whatsoever. Movies like The Libertine and The Patriot are prime examples of this emptiness within the genre, as if just putting on an elaborate gown and having an arranged marriage is all one needs to do to woo the audience. Which, incidentally, is the crux of the latest period piece we are discussing today, Saul Dibb’s The Duchess.

The film recounts the scandalous historic figure Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. It begins with her arranged marriage to the Duke of Devonshire at the ripe old age of 17. She is a wild, independent spirit who at heart is still just a girl. The Duke of Devonshire, on the other hand, is the devil. He has no humor, no compassion, no warm human qualities. The only thing he has going for him as a person is that he is extremely rich and he is portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. Their marriage is rocky and was doomed from the start, but the Duke has no problems with that as long as his wife produces a male heir. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be happening. She produces heirs, but only inferior, penis-less heirs that go by the name of ‘woman’. The Duke is not the least bit pleased. Nor is he pleased by the new vices she has picked up in her new position of power, namely gambling, high fashion, and politics. For in the world of politics, she falls in love with a charming young politician bucking for the position of Prime Minister named Charles Grey. And love does not fit into the Duke’s plans anywhere. Can the Duchess sate her passion in this harsh Georgian climate? Will the Duke find out about his Duchess’s young love? Is there anyone Georgiana can turn to in this world so cold towards the second sex?

Now, if you have seen the commercials or checked out the 1000-mile tall billboard they placed on the moon for this picture (I can see it every night from outside my window), you’ll know that this was marketed as a period drama about a woman who challenged the rules, broke with tradition. All over the television spots I remember seeing a story about an empowered woman making her mark on history, and that sounded pretty good to me. So while I was not aware of this character’s historical background (Georgian era is not my fortĂ©), I was interested in taking this crash course and diving in head first. Looking back on it, I wish I had done my research more closely.

This is a phenomenon that happens all the time in Hollywood that someone needs to address. I will start a tally and begin to call this industry syndrome Marketing For Dummies. The Duchess of Devonshire was an undeniably strong woman who earned her place in history not only her beauty and her sense of fashion, but by the daring way she edged her way into the boys club of politics. Keira Knightley’s Duchess is a growling but ultimately submissive cur who takes what scraps the world deems fit to give her. I am almost appalled by the way she portrays this intriguing aristocrat with almost none of the backbone that her real-life facsimile had. The Duke is an empty metaphor for a callous world, and I am fine with Ralph Fiennes performance as a quirky, evil Duke with no scruples about what he does. It probably did not even require an actor of Fiennes’s caliber to fill this position, but I digress. Keira Knightley is the one that confuses me. This was not what I was promised in my giant billboard.

Perhaps it is a mixture of vague direction (Saul Dibb is a rookie director) and two vastly different screenwriters working on the same script (Jeffrey Hatcher works mostly with the stage, and Anders Thomas Jensen is kind of Danish) but the character of the Duchess of Devonshire presented here is deeply unsatisfying. I cannot like her. She is almost repellent to me. I know women had very little to no say in this day and age, but some of the things this woman has to put up with would make someone real seeth through the teeth and bite someone’s neck like a bear. Keira Knightley just sits around like a limp hot dog and pouts. The real Duchess I don’t think was so flacid. It was very disconcerting.

The cinematography is great. There are some really good shots here for the techies. The color is rich and as usual the time is impeccably evoked by the costume and set design. I cannot believe some of the locales used by this movie. The mansions are peerless, and make you realize just what made the impoverished so damn mad all the time. They had to walk home to their hovels and shanties looking at palaces that had a hundred lavish empty rooms.

But in the end I cannot get over the main character being so unlikeable for me. It was soul-crushing to watch her. And I cannot put this all on Mrs. Knightley because I am not aware of how things were on-set. And maybe I am over-reacting, but watching this movie again I still culd feel nothing but contempt at the fake, desolate woman this film had chunked at me. If you feel differently, leave a comment. I am up for discussion anytime. Until then, I give The Duchess 4 1000-mile tall billboards out of 10.

See you tomorrow for a surprise, folks!! What will it be tomorrow!!!! I can’t wait!!!!!!!