After ranting about a slew of recent costume dramas that suffer from Empty Dress Syndrome, I’m relieved that The Duchess has partially restored my faith in the whole wigs-and-silk exercise. It’s not an outstanding example of period filmmaking, but it’s superior to the recent dreck that’s been chumming up our screens. It feels a little more genuine — a little smarter and a lot more competent. Maybe the film benefited from the absence of Hollywood meddling (it’s a French-British production), or from the fact that, this time around, filmmakers poured an English A-lister into their lead corset rather than Anne Hathaway or Scarlett Johansson (both of whom do more flailing than acting when they’re transplanted into Europe Past). Keira Knightley has never exactly disappeared into a role, but I’ll concede that she possesses a wide enough array of facial tics to present the illusion of an emotional life when the scene demands it. She holds her own against the palatial interiors, and her anachronistically skinny little frame doesn’t make a total mockery of the fabrics piled five-deep around it. Maybe insomnia was clouding my brain again, but neither The Duchess nor its shallow, red-carpet lead offended — and I’m more surprised than anyone.
The movie is based on Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, whose star was bright enough in the late eighteenth century to inspire plays and satirical portraits. Critics are falling over themselves listing the similarities between the Duchess of Devonshire and her descendent, Princess Di, as if they were somehow linked by genetic destiny — as if marriages for title, distant older husbands, mistresses and misery are fungi rarely bred in the hermetic atmospheres of patriarchy and aristocracy. Plenty of aristo wives distracted themselves with fashion, lovers and political causes even two hundred and some years back (the society wives/charity luncheons cliché didn’t emerge from a vacuum), and plenty of them were salon darlings. The annals brim with women who foreshadowed Diana Spencer, so odds were good they’d share experiences when the latter married Prince Charles; when futures are mapped out by tradition, things get a little repetitive. The only notable commonality between Diana and her ancestor was their celebrity among so-called commoners, but the film barely skims this (it also barely scratches at Georgiana’s drinking, gambling, bisexuality and general flamboyance — traits Diana wasn’t exactly known for). The linking of Georgiana and Diana might be tenuous, but the film chooses to go in that direction in order to explore the Royal Breeder Marriage in all its badness. My cadre of fellow eighteenth-century scholars went nuts on the listservs this weekend cataloguing the biographical “liberties” taken by the movie, but these liberties are par for the course in film adaptations and shouldn’t count for much cinematically. And for every liberty taken with one individual’s biography, there’s a wider history lesson subbed in to balance out the terms.
Knightley’s Georgiana is a mouthpiece for twenty-first-century concerns, but she doesn’t make any modern protests about marrying for love rather than mobility — not at first. At first, she’s a product of her time and class, and she shares her parents’ ambitions when she learns from her mother (Charlotte Rampling) that she’s been chosen to incubate the heirs of the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Georgiana walks down the aisle with a gleam in her eye, and her wedding night is a standard arranged-marriage consummation between an older man and a virgin. There’s no hint of unusual trauma. The crisis only comes when Georgiana realizes her husband can’t stand to be in the same room with a woman unless her legs are hanging open for him; Fiennes plays the Duke colder than liquid nitrogen, and though his portrayal isn’t exactly in keeping with the articulate man it’s based on, it works for my inner historian and lit buff. Fiennes’ Duke is a classic Gothic patriarch who embodies the sterile, Palladian lines of his London estate. He’s a walking monolith of almost absolute power — someone shaped by the fawning of servants and the flattery of earls who, in the social pyramid, nodded up at him. Fiennes might seem too muted, but his character works — in certain scenes he’s close to terrifying, the more so because of the few pulses of soul he emits here and there, to no relief or purpose. Fiennes’ not-quite-cartoon snob is a tricky balance to strike, and his performance props up the film and validates every Gothic novel ever written without relying on those novels’ prurience or romance — his Duke is more Richardson than Radcliffe, rooted in sociological history and, as a result, more displeasing than disturbing, and far more realistic.
Unlike Diana, Georgiana has trouble providing the Duke with a male heir. Six years, two daughters and several still-births on, the disapproval of husband and society starts to chip away at her. She looks for comfort in the gaze of a young Whig and future Prime Minister, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Grey is Georgiana’s distraction (or reward) for putting up with neglect, conjugal rape and her husband’s live-in mistress, Bess (Hayley Atwell). Bess enters the scene as Georgiana’s new best friend, which sets up an arena for lots of spats and weeping under rococo ogees. It’s paroxysm writ genteel — the BBC’s specialty — with no surprises. The Duchess is a typical costume drama in the way it butters its heroine with modern values — in this case, her frustration with women’s legal vulnerability in the 1780s. It’s typical in its steady performances — everyone is good, but only Fiennes stands out as relatively creative. It’s typical in its lavish set and costume design — but here these sets and costumes have a nice, Kubrickian coolness to their lines that really appealed to me. The Duchess can’t be faulted technically. It rejects the lax or even incompetent filmmaking the BBC has allowed to creep into its costume-drama catalogue recently. The movie’s as pristine as a pearl, using dolly-shots and even wide-angle lenses wisely — exactly where these effects will have the most thematic impact — and cinematographer Gyula Pados controls dim or dark scenes with an able hand rather than let himself get bested by shadows. This costume drama left me with a taste to see it again if only for the technique and aesthetic, which hasn’t happened in some time.
The presence of Grey and other politicos also gives The Duchess a bit of a kick and exploits the period’s social turmoil. Rather than bore us with another poor little rich girl sobbing into her silk, the film addresses one of the central realities of English life in the 1780s: rich or poor, male or cloistered female, you couldn’t live too many days without hearing an opinion about the role of parliament, about the newfangled idea of equal rights, or about the possibility of revolution not just in France or America but in England, as well. We only get glimpses here — a speech by Charles Fox at a banquet table, a speech by Grey on a scaffold, a whiff of unrest in France — and that’s fair, considering the object of the film is Georgiana’s domestic saga. It may not be much, but it’s more than most films of the era bother with (unless they’re explicitly about war or democratic change). It’s a shame most movies set in or around the 1700s focus on the landscape of the upper classes, or on those who happen to drop in on that landscape (e.g. Barry Lyndon or Vatel or Amadeus); filmmakers can’t seem to resist the temptation of all those wigs and gowns — all those French-finished armoires — but hot damn am I ready for a movie set in the Long Eighteenth that doesn’t straddle either a settee or a war-horse. Let’s see the shit and the pus of the era — let’s see Humphry Clinker or some other manifestation of the grotesque that fascinated its poets and represented everyday life. The Duchess swells with fine cloth and furnishings, but it doesn’t completely navel-gaze, either; it tries to frame Georgiana’s personal crisis not just within gender politics but within European ones, as well. The results are a little artificial and clumsy, but they’re smoother than what we’ve seen elsewhere lately, and while the superimposing of democratic ideals of freedom onto a tale of a woman who feels imprisoned in her own house isn’t exactly inspired (or subtle), it at least gives us something to think about when we aren’t being distracted by the set. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on October 15, 2008.)