Maybe it's me, but in modern mainstream cinema, genre films seem increasingly to congeal, becoming somehow more of what we expect them to be and less of what makes a film a lasting contribution to movies: freshness, spontaneity, wit, intellectual rigor, emotional potency. This phenomenon makes exceptional, genre-stretching films stand out in yet greater relief, but it also allows a growing midsection full of prestigious pap. The Duchess is a period piece with sturdy acting, eye-catching locations and costumes, and romantic melodrama that's involving...enough. But on the evidence of the big picture, writer-director Saul Dibb and co-screenwriters Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty, Casanova) and Anders Thomas Jensen (Open Hearts, Brothers, After the Wedding) seem willing to settle for all-around competency instead of excavating history for deeper insights, leaving audiences with another undemanding genre placeholder.
Keira Knightley (a bad start if you're looking for penetrating insight) stars as Georgiana, who in the film's 1774-set opening sequence becomes Duchess of Devonshire. Egged on by her mother Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), Georgiana eagerly marries William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), only to discover that he really meant it when he said that all he wants from her is a male heir. "He isn't interested in anything, apart from his dogs," Georgiana complains, but she soon discovers that her husband also has a guiltless wandering eye, another facet of his strong but passionless sexual imperative. The Duke is socially repressed to the point of psychopathology, but he knows what he wants, and Georgiana isn't giving it to him; instead, within London's palatial Chatsworth House, they're racking up useless daughters. "As a husband, I have fulfilled my obligations. But as a wife, you have not," says the Duke.
Matters get ugly when the Duke sets his eye on Georgiana's new best friend, Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster (Hayley Atwell), though at least it gives Georgiana a sort of license to pursue her interest in Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a rising star in the Whig Party (and later both Prime Minister and the namesake of Earl Grey tea). Dibb, Hatcher, and Jensen fail to tease out the true complexity of the ménage à trois amongst the Duke, the Duchess and Bess, a plotline that plays out in only the most obvious ways. The film fares a bit better with Georgiana's interest in politics, as she throws her celebrity status in favor of the Whigs and, in particular, her distant cousin Charles Fox (Simon McBurney). As the film has it, she also conspired with Richard Sheridan on The School for Scandal, the classic comedy modelled on her marriage to Cavendish. For a woman of such uncommon power, Georgiana nevertheless comes across as powerless and naive in her domestic life.
Though it's "Based on a true story" and Amanda Foreman's book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Dibb's film misleadingly portrays Georgiana as a woman trapped by her husband (and, to some degree, her mother). In this fiction, the film is able to dramatize the familial and social complications common to 18th Century tales, but the film seems truest when it deals with Georgiana the socialite, a subject of relative disinterest to the screenwriters. Georgiana took to being a socialite like a duck takes to water, and it was there that she located her power. It was also there that she succumbed to (or perhaps sublimated her frustrations into) her baser instincts, accumulating massive gambling debts and enjoying substance abuse (notions Dibb touches on only briefly).
Ultimately, The Duchess is the sort of stately, straightforward, stale period film that suggests viewers seek truth not in drama but a library. While that's a sensible position to a point, it sells drama short. While Knightley acquits herself nicely given the compromised script, it's Fiennes who makes the most of the material, bringing depth to the portrait of a man most films of this type would gladly view in only two dimensions.
Paramount rounds up a few interesting bonus features, all in HD, for its Blu-ray special edition of The Duchess, which features a sturdy A/V transfer. Having not seen this film in a theater, it's difficult for me to say how well the home-video version represents the filmmaker's intent, though to my eye the contrast reads a bit bright, which takes the edge off the detail just a tad. Nevertheless, this is a handsome film with picture quality to match that effectively highlights the astonishing locations and delicately brocaded costumes. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround captures every nuance of the original sound mix in hi-res audio, making for an all-around fine presentation.
"How Far She Went...: Making The Duchess" (22:48 with "Play All" option, HD) looks at the film's historical underpinnings, director Saul Dibb's concept, and the locations, actors, production design and lighting of the film. Participants include historical advisor Hannah Grieg, Keira Knightley, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire author Amanda Foreman, Dibb, Ralph Fiennes, Chatsworth promotions manager Simon Seligman, production designer Michael Carlin, DP Gyula Pados, makeup man Daniel Phillips, and hair woman Jan Archibald.
"Georgiana in Her Own Words" (7:11, HD) is the most interesting bonus, with Foreman and producer Gabrielle Tana examining the Duchess' actual letters. "Costume Diary" (5:37, HD) takes a close look at the film's costumes, with costume designer Michael O'Connor, Knightley, and Hayley Atwell. Lastly, we get "Theatrical Trailer 1" (1:51, HD) and "Theatrical Trailer 2" (2:34, HD). It's a sterling package for one of the year's most prominent period films.
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