Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Duchess (2008)

I would not like to pinpoint what it is about Keira Knightley which has given her the starry career that she enjoys today. She is certainly no raving beauty and her acting is often little more than adequate. Still she looks good in period frocks and is, at worst, pleasantly inoffensive. She gets the chance to strut her stuff in a series of elaborate outfits and wigs in this 18th Century tale based on the biography by Amanda Foreman of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a distant relation of the late Princess of Wales.

Pimped by her mother Charlotte Rampling into a marriage with the older but more than eligible Duke of Devonshire portrayed by the ever-icy Ralph Fiennes, she is chosen primarily as a brood mare to produce the necessary male heir. When she fails in her duty by giving birth to two daughters to add to the bastard daughter that Fiennes has brought into their family, he takes up with Knightley's previous best friend (Hayley Atwell) who aready has three sons and who becomes a permanent fixture in the household. It's not that Fiennes is particularly evil (albeit rather dislikeable here), but rather that he is personifying the expected approach of a powerful and determined man of his era. After eventually producing a son (the result of a "rape" by her husband), Knightley becomes a figurehead for political causes of the period, begins an affair with the rather callow Dominic Cooper, playing Charles Grey (who eventually did become Prime Minister), and has a daughter out of wedlock by him. Fiennes manages to hush this up but does not permit his wife to openly continue any relationship with her lover, despite the menage a trois at home.

Frankly I found this pretty-to-watch but fairly stodgy historical drama. The producers and publicists appear to be milking the Princess Di connection by emphasizing the parallels in the two relationships, going so far as to have the Duchess comment that 'there are three people in this marriage' or words to that effect. My favourite bit of dialogue however came from a scene where the fairly tipsy Duchess bumps into a candelabra and sets her wig afire. Cool as a cucumber Fiennes' Duke says 'Please put out Her Grace's hair'. Yup, that was the highpoint!

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