Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Duchess – Review

In 18th century Britain, Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), lives a life of luxury and fame (or infamy). But as you would expect, she is not a happy duchess, caught in a joyless marriage with The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Feinnes), who is impatient with his wife's inability to produce a male heir. Consequently, he begins philandering with her friend Bess (Hayley Atwell), thus increasing the sourness between them.

A few quick thoughts:

Compared to the dismal quality of European costume-dramas in recent years, The Duchess is not that bad. It's certainly better than Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Knightley ably plays Georgiana without overdoing the sympathy we're obviously supposed to be feeling for her, and Feinnes is terrific (isn't he always) as the egocentric Duke. While there are some rather stale scenes for the both of them, they mostly exhibit strong chemistry when on screen together without becoming melodramatic.

Unfortunately, there is still untapped potential here. Director Saul Dibb has acquired a talented cast but hasn't given them much chance to really explore their characters. I left the theatre unsatisfied, wanting to have learned more. Worse yet were the insistent similarities the film drew between Georgiana and Princess Diana. Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past 20 years would be able to figure this out without having it crammed down their throat.

That said, it was not a disappointing movie, although expectations can't have been that high after recent entries to the genre such as the aforementioned Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Marie Antoinette. Many critics have been praising the work of Knightley and Feinnes, implicating possible Oscar recognition. I think in a normal year, Knightley would have had a shot. But this is shaping up to be an incredibly strong year for lead actresses (and I'm not complaining), so Knightley doesn't stand a chance. If they push for Feinnes in supporting, he could upset, but I'm skeptical.

The only category it's guaranteed in is costume design (Michael O'Connor), and it will probably win. If the past two winners of this category could be such bad films, a not-so-bad film should be a lock, right? Don't rule out Michael Carlin and Rebecca Alleway for art direction.

**1/2 out of ****

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