Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Duchess (2008)

Movie quotes:
Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes): This will be the mistake of your life.
Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley): No, I made that many years ago.

At a glance:
Keira Knightley leads us through the tormented life of the Duchess of Devonshire, as she tries to balance her dreams and desires against the obligations of the wife of a Duke

Our review:
I’ve got a couple of very good friends – let’s call them Ron and Jan – who watch a lot of movies. They are movie lovers, and they generally like – or at least appreciate – almost every movie they see. But they have one secret to this formula: they don’t watch period dramas.

Maybe I should do the same.

I watched The Duchess, but, like I say when I am reviewing a horror or martial arts film, I’m not qualified to review these types of films – certainly, I am not qualified to review these films for those who love the genre and watch lots of these types of films. But I’ll review it anyway.

The Duchess is the based-on-a-true-story of Georgiana (Keira Knightley), who realized her life dream when the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) chose her as his young bride. Although she appreciates the affluence this affords her, she soon learns that the Duke is a cold, unfriendly husband of little words whose only real interest is in fulfilling his duties by fathering a son. Instead, she gives birth to two girls (and is also mother to a third girl that the Duke fathered in another relationship). The Duke spends a lot of time in affairs with various other women, and even maintains a long-term relationship with Georgina’s live-in friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell). When Georgiana proposes a deal whereby she could also have an affair with Charles Gray, the man she truly loves, the Duke simply says no. When she does so anyway, he threatens to take her children away and ruin Gray’s political career.

Knightley is excellent as she inhabits the life and emotions of the Duchess, and Fiennes plays the cold Duke as a man who is also a prisoner of the society in which he lives. And there is my question for the day: why must we see story after story about this backward time in British history, where aristocracy was king, men ruled with an iron hand, and strong, intelligent, passionate women had to give in? I just don’t want to see these stories, nor do I feel like I take anything away from them, other than a warm feeling that we no longer live in those times.

My second question is: I wonder just how accurate these period dramas are. Viewed through modern eyes, the sadness and torment of the Duchess (and Duke) trapped in the mores of their era makes sense, and there is some drama in seeing what choices they will make, but was there the same sadness, torment, and drama at the time? Somehow, I think not; in most cases, it would have been a no-brainer that the Duchess had to be subservient to the Duke, or her life would be ruined. She would know nothing of 21st century equality, and therefore would not be missing it as much as the current audience.

The final question (that you might ask) is, why did I watch this film? Well, as a reviewer, I feel somewhat obligated to review all major films, regardless of genre. Secondly, it allowed this duke a shared experience with his duchess. (Ironically, if this was the 18th century, I as Duke could have dictated the movie we would watch, and I would now be reviewing Hellboy 2) :).

Anyway, back to the review: I thought it was a good period drama, played very straight – no added humor, self-referential moments, or distractingly modern camera angles or jump cuts. This purity helped ground the story and give it plausibility, while perhaps taking away a little fun. Rating: 2.5 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"The film's real power lies with Knightley. She easily could have gone over the emotional top, but instead gives a measured performance that increasingly draws you in."
- FILMINK (Australia)

"It’s a curiously inert, workmanlike production: a whole lot of pomp and incircumstance."
- Kimberly Jones (Austin Chronicle)

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