The Duchess

2009-02-03 12:54
The Duchess

What it's about:

A chronicle of the life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), who was reviled for her extravagant political and personal life.

What we thought of it:

Pretty girls in white dresses dancing on lawns, tall, dark and handsome guys in white ruffs… it's all very well, but it's time someone took the period drama and gave it a bit of a shake. It's become way too set in its ways, and focused too much on pleasure. Sure, we don't all want to deal with the traumas of being a woman in a much more sexist world to the extent that Tess (1979) forced us to. But being lied to isn't much use, either.

Most period dramas, like most sci-fi and Shakespeare movies, paint the world as we'd basically like it to be: a place where, if you play the game by the rules, it's possible to win - a place where outsiders can find happiness by finding one another.

Take the Jane Austen period drama plot: pretty, clever girl overcomes her own paranoia by finding the one man who, like her, is a rebel, who gets her (and is worthy of marrying her). Take Shakespeare's turn: pretty, bolshie and intelligent girl pretends to be a boy and finds a man who is charmed by her ferocity enough to want to tame and marry her.

But it wasn't really like this. In reality, men were legally allowed to beat their wives. Servants were frequently raped and abused. Girl children were unwelcome mistakes.

So it's rare to find a filmmaker who's willing to tell this story in this context - about a woman who, tragically perhaps, would know her place but never like it, but stuck in it anyhow. Pleasant as a happy ending would be, director Saul Dibb is willing to show how Georgiana literally found a way to accept and make the best of a bad thing. Like we all do, even today.

And it's not just for girls. We've all seen the usual movie, in which the male lead is a terrible person, but terribly gorgeous too - the kind of guy you actually wish would just rip your bodice. The Duchess is all about subtlety. The feminist message isn't "rise up and fight", but rather "here's what to fight." And the enemy's not simply men, other women, or the law. It's a whole lot more complicated than that. 

Ralph Fiennes' Duke is no attractive bastard a la Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl. Neither is he the evil bastard. He's just a powerful man who's really as weak and ordinary as anyone else inside, who exploits the advantages of his position to sleep around and get his way, while he requires loyalty from his wife. But he nevertheless sees the injustice of the way the world works, and no more wants to keep up appearances than his victim does. A brilliant performance.

Even Keira Knightley, who usually seems to be a long neck supporting a doll's head sticking out of a dress, seems to step out of her stereotype. Slightly more lopsided (and therefore more real) than she's been in previous roles, she nearly becomes human enough to fantasise about.

Extremely well researched and boasting amazing attention to detail, this film has a few glaring flaws: the unconvincing casting of the pug-nosed Dominic Cooper as Knightley's supposedly irresistible loverboy and future prime minister, the over-the-top musical scoring, and the fact that it's at least 20 minutes too long.

But overall, it's satisfying and inspiring, and Ralph Fiennes' performance alone is enough reason to go and see it. 

This ground-breaking, tear-jerking period drama acknowledges female frailty, and the bravest things about femininity - without covering it all in flowers.

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