DVD Review: The Duchess

“As they say, the Duke of Devonshire is the only man in england not in love with his wife”

Another of the films that I revisited in my period drama splurge over Christmas was The Duchess. This Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes vehicle did fairly well in 2008 and I quite enjoyed it at the cinema, though I remember being a little tired of the marketing shtick that overplayed the title character’s familial connection with the late sainted Diana, Princess of Wales and rather unnecessarily sought to draw huge parallels between the two. The film is about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who delighted and scandalised late eighteenth century society with her extravagance, forward fashion sense and a soft spot for gambling. Her marriage to the Duke though was far from happy though and as her public persona rises and rises and she becomes beloved of most everyone, behind closed doors infidelities and terrible betrayals push the Duchess to extreme measures.

I did enjoy watching this again for the most part and it is strongly acted, but for a film that covers at least ten years, it is surprisingly slow moving. Knightley in particular is excellent as Georgiana (I’ve never understood why she is such a polarising figure), a woman ahead of her time in many ways with her intellect and political nous having no official outlet in the society of its time and also challenged by being unable to contain her passion for Dominic Cooper’s Charles Gray (great casting choice!). Her portrayal deepens as the film progresses too, she becomes a convincing mother and pained victim faced with a harrowing choice as Fiennes’ passive-aggressive Duke finally rouses into action. He is superbly controlled throughout, almost terrifying with his impassive domination of all around him and the best scenes of the film, in my opinion, are the masterful shots at the long dinner table with husband and wife at either end and his mistress in the middle – beautifully, excruciatingly done.

That mistress is Bess Foster (never trust anyone with that last name!): Georgiana’s best friend turned cuckoo in the nest played with a cold precision by Hayley Atwell. When I saw Atwell in The Faith Machine earlier this year, I couldn’t put my finger on why I held an irrational idslike for her and I reckon I was holding onto memories of this. It is is a difficult role and she does do well in it, but it does make you want to slap her. Other theatrical spots in the cast were a great double act of Simon McBurney and Aidan McArdle as Charles Fox and RB Sheridan, great friends of the duchess through thick and thin and there were nice blink and miss ‘em turns from John Shrapnel, Luke Norris and Bruce McKinnon.

As it usual with the better films in this genre, the production values are simply gorgeous: many UK stately homes were used in filming, Michael O’Connor’s Oscar-winning costumes (Oscar does predictably love a costume drama…) are sumptuous delights and the wigs are out of this world. Rachel Portman’s score is sweepingly moving and it is all done extremely well – Charlotte Rampling is also excellent as Georgiana’s mother – but it never quite grabs the heart. The most moving revelation is saved for a postscript at the end and suggests that the film could have valuably gone on for a few more years to really get a sense of what a remarkable woman she was aside from the scandal. One to watch on the tv rather than rent I think.

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