Thursday, November 13, 2008

It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World

Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightly, Hayley Atwell
Directed by Saul Dibb; 110 minutes

The Duchess

The Duchess is a bio-pic based on the heavily lauded 1998 Amanda Foreman book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana was the “it” girl of her day: gorgeous, rich, vibrant, rich, politically involved, and very, very rich. She was a Spencer, and married to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire.

The Duchess doesn’t seem entirely sure what it wants to be and say. It’s not solidly romantic (or downer, as they often are) enough to be a costume/bedroom drama in the Merchant-Ivory mode, nor is it brutal enough to fall into Dangerous Liasons-style intrigue and depravity.

The Duchess also wants to make a statement on suffrage, and doesn’t mind giving its title character an implausible innocence to the wicked ways of her world to illustrate. I’ll admit up front, I haven’t read Foreman’s book; maybe Spencer truly had no choice about the circumstances of her household, but I have a difficult time believing it. We’ll come back to that.

Where it might best succeed is as a retelling of England’s Prince Charles - Princess Diana - Camilla Parker-Bowles triangle, set far enough in the past that no one can outright accuse the producers of doing so (oops! I think I just did). It’s no small coincidence the publicity makes a point of mentioning Diana Spencer was a direct descendant of Georgiana’s father, the first Earl Spencer.

As the movie opens, Georgiana is among friends on immaculately manicured lawns, indulging a betting habit, backing her future lover in a footrace while indoors, her mother (portrayed by Charlotte Rampling) is busy horsetrading as well, convincing Cavendish of the girl’s likely capacity as a future breeder of Cavendish heirs.

Playing Charles to Knightly’s Diana is Ralph Fiennes, who turns in one of his more understated performances as a man who's clueless to everything but his own needs and wants. He beds his terrified, virginal wife by trying to introduce her to kinks straight out of the gate; barely tolerates her when she fails to produce a son right off the bat; makes a mistress of her live-in BFF; rapes her when she threatens his secure spot as "top"; threatens to divorce, separate her from her children, and ruin Georgiana's lover’s political career if she refuses to cut off the affair and give up custody of its issue - after having previously installed one of his own out-of-wedlock children in the household.

On paper William sounds like a pig; in his time, he may well have been. Fiennes humanizes the character by making it clear Cavendish is only doing what he believes is expected of him. He’s not an evil man, he’s just playing the game he’s been bred to and doesn't get why "G" won't play her part. Only after having flexed his power and gained some understanding of how rigged the game is, does he take his head out of his ass and cut Georgiana some slack.

Georgiana, surprisingly, seems to not be fully aware of the rules. In reaction to the news she’s become engaged to one of the most powerful men in Britain: “He loves me?” she asks her matchmaking mama, who confirms it and encourages the fairy tale. Again, I haven’t read the book, but I’ve just got to call “bullshit” on this one. We’ve heard all about the adage, “lie back and think of England,” too many times to refrain from calling bull on that.

The horribly mismatched odds in this battle of the sexes, which give the story it’s dramatic tension, just aren’t entirely believable - the film's main flaw. In addition to the example above, if Georgiana really wanted William’s mistress out of the house, there would have been plentiful ways to make it happen. What the movie only hints at, history openly acknowledges: Elizabeth Foster was lover to both husband and wife.

The other weak spot is watching Ralph Fiennes act circles around Keira Knightly. She has great charisma and sells her performances, but she’s becoming more and more the female answer to Tom Cruise. She does a great job of expressing what’s put in front of her, but whatever character she plays, it always ends up being Keira Knightly as (insert role description here). The movie is The Duchess, but the character to study is the Duke.

No comments: