January 21, 2009

Passion that Might Have Been

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Keira Knightley stars in the The Duchess, which has as much depth and intellect as 90210, but without the flair. The Duchess, a semi-non-fictional film about the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire rides high on fluff and drama but has no voice or message. While TV shows like 90210 and Gossip Girl makes the petty intrigues and romances of young people glamorous and sparkling, The Duchess revels in unsympathetic, disingenuous characters. The Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), could have been a rich life for investigation considering her political persona, her flair for fashion and social life. The film however, shows her over and over again as a victim of the era she lived in. Even Knightley’s usual spunk is dampened by the perpetual dullness of this film.
The plot of The Duchess, based on the real life of Georgiana Spencer, goes loosely like this: boy meets girl. They flirt a bit. Girl marries old, old man, who is interested in nothing but his hunting dogs and other women. They become man and wife, proceed to have passionless sex. Husband cheats on wife with her best friend. Wife rebounds with her first love. This muddle of love affairs, however, does not result in a violent, passionate show down—the fireworks the audience expects after seduction and betrayal—but rather hours of whining. Keira Knightley whines, the friend and the lover whine and Ralph Fiennes whines the worst. The movie walks a horrible line between appreciating the glamour of scandal for what it’s worth and trying to be a sincere film about life or love.
Ralph Fiennes plays the Duke of Devonshire, who spends the movie seducing women with a blank stare, a monotonous voice, and a crippling lack of passion. He unconvincingly uses his power and stature to lure half the women in London to his bed (excluding his wife.) Sex—always high scandal for Hollywood and TV, becomes a bloodless, lifeless act in The Duchess. What should have been the portrayal of a man addicted to carnality and philandering became a grim documentary about the Duke’s bad posture and lack of conversational wit. The film even resorts to what would be considered a “ratings grab” on prime time television—a little girl-on-girl between the Duchess and her best friend. The film however, is not interested in the romantic relationship between these women, only a brief moment of carnality to the degrading soundtrack of what might be porno tunes.
It is unclear what director Saul Dibb (Easy Money) believes is the soul of his movie. He tries to seduce his audience with endless pastel gowns, sequences of grey landscapes and close-ups of the unmoving face of Ralph Fiennes. Dibb does not reveal hidden spirit in the lives of these aristocrats and their vices, as he might have. Their spiffy outfits do not conceal that their vices are, ultimately, just like ours. The political atmosphere of the era could have been the soul of the movie—Dibb, however, demeans the Whig’s rhetoric of freedom and liberty to pre-sex pillow talk.
Keira Knightley, on whom period piece dresses usually become the frame for big, speaking eyes and an inner spitfire, hides behind those same costumes: more often the audience ends up looking at the dress than the woman. Ralph Fiennes, similarly, retreats behind an aging visage and barely reaches out at all. His moments of extreme anger and ardor aren’t differentiable from scenes of casual conversation. What might have befitted the staunch upper crust of 19th century Britain hardly befits a Hollywood film. If you’re looking for dirty scandals of infidelity, betrayal and politics, turn on Gossip Girl instead. The Duchess is a two-hour elegy on the passion that might have been.

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