Friday, January 2, 2009

The Duchess (2008)



Having read the book, I thought I would share a few thoughts about the film, which we watched over the holidays. I heartily concur with Catherine Delors in her review of The Duchess. To quote Madame Delors:
It has everything one expects from a period piece: the lavish costumes, the beautiful English country estates, the carriages, the obligatory shots of Bath. It is not visually stunning, but it looks good.

The cast is uneven. Ralph Fiennes (the Duke of Devonshire) again proves himself one of the most accomplished actors around these days. He makes the difficult character of the Duke more human, more interesting , more sympathetic than anyone else in the film.

Keira Knightley (the Duchess) doesn't quite perform at the same level. She has developed the annoying trick of using her jaw, the most prominent feature in her face, to signal her character's emotions. Jaw jutting forward means that we are dealing with one tough cookie. Jaw moving side to side indicates that some sharp repartee is coming our way. But this is not enough. She may cry, yell, whimper, but the emotion is missing.
I agree. Keira was an abysmal choice for Georgiana. She slouches, is too thin, of course, and altogether too prim. Georgiana was a person of enormous warmth and charm. Being a lady does not necessarily imply a stiff and unnatural manner but some filmmakers seem to think it does. Georgiana had the common touch and could exchange jests with working people in the crowd, which is why she was such an effective political tool for the Whig party. Certainly there are other English actresses who could have played Georgiana with the right mix of grace, playful audacity and mild insanity. Someone like Sarah Miles, who played Georgiana's terrible niece in the 70's melodrama Lady Caroline Lamb, perhaps would have been better.

The only part of the film in which I was genuinely moved was when Georgiana had to give up her baby. Keira was able to come across as someone who has been psychologically trampled into the mud. The rest of the film, however, including the scenes with lover Charles Grey, lacked in passion. Since there is little or no moral compass, other than what is demonstrated by Georgiana's love for her children, the insufficient emotional impact leaves the viewer with nothing but the depravity.

Furthermore, Marie-Antoinette, who was one of Georgiana's most famous and interesting friends, was not in the film at all. Seeing Georgiana interact at Versailles would have been a worthy addition to the film, but it was not to be. And where was the Prince of Wales, who played such a pivotal role in Georgiana's political and social life? He may have been standing around at a party telling crude jokes, but not identified, at least not in any meaningful way. What a pity, he was such a colorful character, and would have livened things up a bit.

Another odd aspect was the absence of humor. There are other period films about the British aristocracy, such as Gosford Park, The Remains of the Day, Sense and Sensibility, that combine humor with pathos and tragedy. The Duchess did not have a single funny moment. Anyone can see from reading Georgiana's letters that she had a deep sense of comedy; her wit sparkles from the page. It is sad that none of this came across in the movie. It is sad, since there was potential there to bring a fascinating historical character to life. What a shame. Share

15 comments:

Ms. Lucy said...

I have to agree with you that this movie lacked where it could have easily portrayed Georgiana much more realistically. There was absolutely no warmth of character and physically, this was not in any way the Duchess. I was very disapointed in the movie. I too was moved by the part where she gives up her daughter- especially when Georgiana tells them her baby's name as they part with her.

elena maria vidal said...

It really was a disappointment, Lucy. It could have been so good.

Anonymous said...

I do not understand this fascination with Kiera Knightley. She is very pretty but I think she needs some coaching to help her cast off some bad habits that she injects into every role. Her teeth clenching and jaw thrusting is very distracting. When she is on the screen I am 1. concerned that she might blow away and 2. worried that at any moment her jaw might pop off as she moves it about so much! I am glad I am not the only one to have noticed these things.....I was beginning to think I was being too picky.

elena maria vidal said...

I really do think that Keira should avoid period films until she puts on some weight.

Karen- The Graphics Fairy said...

Oh, what a shame, I had such high hopes for this one! Thanks for reviewing this. I guess I'll wait and rent it later...
Karen

Viola said...

I don't agree, I'm afraid. I actually liked Keira in this film, although I thought that she was no good as Elizabeth Bennet. I did feel passion in the scenes in which she was with Charles Grey! I enjoyed the movie generally and thought that the Duchess was portrayed as a warm and sympathetic character.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

"Altogether too prim" is perfect, Elena! It explains why Kiera was also the wrong choice for Elizabeth Swann, the admiral's daughter who becomes a pirate lord in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Tomboyish roles suit her (and she does look incredibly cute in those pirate costumes), but she comes across as an enthusiastic girl rather than a mature woman. Barring some drastic change (which is always possible, of course), I see her career taking the same route as Winona Ryder's.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, she tries to make herself more feminine by being too prim. Indeed, she reminds me more of Wynona Ryder every day.

Paris Atelier said...

Here, here! I agree with everything. I just finished watching the movie with my husband and I was a bit disappointed! After reading the book, I had grand things in mind, but I was left thinking the story was not told properly. I don't know if it was Keira Knightly or the script but it did not do justice to a story and page in time that was much more colorful. Still a delight to see the costumes and settings though!
xoxo
Judith~

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more that the most moving part of the film is when Georgiana had to give up her baby while the love scenes lack in genuine emotion.

Anonymous said...

I refused to see this film, though I do love these dramas, the costumes and everything are so wonderful... but Keira Knightley is a terrible, terrible actress. She cannot act. And it annoys me that she gets all these parts and takes in all of this money just because the media seems to tell us that shes good.
There are many, much better actresses out there.
*sigh*
Maybe I'll get the DVD. And rent it. Just because I don't want them to think they are profiting because of her role.

Linda said...

I'm afraid I disagree. I like this film and felt for the Duchess from the point of her first sexual encounter with the Duke to the end. So much grief seems to have attended the demand for a male heir in Britain. It is not Knightley's fault if the film did not show more of the Duchess's public life. I did not think much of Keira Knightley until I saw Atonement. Thanks to her acting and that of James McAvoy, I felt for these characters far more than when I read the book.

elena maria vidal said...

I felt sorry for her, too. I just don't think Keira was right for the part. I probably would have liked it better if I had not read the book first.

Unstoppable Spirit said...

I have not read the book. I liked the film as it is and all the actors. I felt so much grief for Keira's character which for me she did a great job.

Anonymous said...

whew! I thought I was the only one who thinks Keira Knightly as a poor choice to play the role of Georgiana. And I didn't know that the real Georgiana was friends with Marie Antoinette. How interesting! :)