Sep 14, 2008

On The Duchess

Based on Amanda Foreman’s account of the life and times of Georgiana Spencer, the 18th century British aristocrat skillfully embodied by an electric Keira Knightley in Saul Dibb’s The Duchess, the resulting film proves to be a durable specialty division entertainment, the type of sturdy art house costume drama Merchant and ivory used to crank out with steadfast consistency for three decades. It gently and with great attention to both the intricacies of Aristocratic life and the economic struggles of unattached 18th century women presents us with a scenario that could be mined thematically for luke warm platitudes about gender inequality, but ultimately proves to tackle more thorny, complex issues of responsibility and duty as well. Mostly, it works because of the unobtrusive but sensual style of its director and the complete intellectual commitment of its screenwriters and dynamic gifts of its performers, who given their costume picture heavy resumes, probably find much of this stuff old hat.

The story opens just as King George III is about to wage war on those pesky separatists, the Americans. Georgiana’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) agrees to marry her off to the esteemed noble William Canvendish (Ralph Fiennes), soon to be Duke of Devonshire, who is looking for a fertile lass to furnish him with an heir. Georgiana goes along with the plan, although she already has her eyes set of the young Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), middle class son of a nonetheless prominent general. Charles occasionally shows up to at the Spencer estate with his friends and never fails to make eyes at the soon to be Duchess.

Of course Georgiana's marriage is seen a stultifying and untenable. She is unable, after three successful births, to produce the all-important male heir. William sleeps around, first with random house hands, later with Georgiana’s friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), whom Georgiana has invited to stay in their home after she flees from her abusive husband, who has promised never to allow her to see their children again. Georgiana tolerates the affair, although when she expects the same treatment following a dalliance with the now politically ambitious Gray, she has another thing coming from her intolerant husband.

With a situation like this, one can't help but think back to The Other Boleyn Girl, the recapitulation of the Henry the VIII saga that dropped like a stone upon it's release in March. Where that British period drama/historical fantasy felt unduly manufactured, from its overwrought, under-nuanced characterizations to its sterile HD lensing, this film, shot by the very talented Hungarian DP Gyula Pados, feels aesthetically alive, unhurried in its narrative rhythms and rarely rings a false emotional note on the part of the performers.

The strength of the leads also makes it standout from Boleyn, which was hampered by an overmatched Scarlett Johansson and utterly unsympathetic portrayals by Natalie Portman and Eric Bana. Knightley, who has charm to burn in even the most underwritten roles, never fails to dramatize the tension within Spencer between her role of preordained subservience and an unwavering need for fairness, between feminine acquiescence and a desire for respect and equality.

Composed, intellectually incurious, obsessed with his pair of rambunctious dogs and not without certain hard to reach charms he can’t quite access of cue, Fiennes plays the Duke with the aplomb of a wily veteran performer who, as witnessed both in this and the recent In Bruges, seems increasingly comfortable playing against type, this time as an unsophisticated man who is not the brute one may be led by the film's middle passages to believe him to be. He's such a rangy actor; weather playing the Nazi monster Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List or game show fraud Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show, we often find Fiennes playing rigorously intelligent men whose flaws are cannot be attributed not for lack of thinking about them. Here we see him as someone unprepared for sharing and emotional risk, something that women of Spencer’s generation were not taught to expect from their husbands, but began to demand anyway. Fiennes expertly sells William’s subtle evolution as he slowly begins to understand, over a century before suffrage, and after a decade of martial mishaps and betrayals, that for them to have some “quiet regularity” may require sacrifice on his part as well.

An unlikely practitioner of this type of work, the forty year old Dibb, whose work includes Bullet Boy, a crime drama set amongst black Londoners, and a BBC financed adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s booker prize winning The Line of Beauty, is a director who we wait to hear from again with great expectations.