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I don’t often get a chance to say it, but: John, you are absolutely right.  Don’t let it go to your head.  To briefly summarize, The Duchess is a conventional costume drama.  Read John’s post for further details on that front, there’s no point in me repeating what he said, but suffice it to say that if the spoof movies (e.g. Scary Movie, Meet the Spartans, Dance Flick) ever get around to doing these type of movies, they probably could just watch this one and do a pretty job on the genre.  I agree that The Duchess could have taken a number of potentially interesting different tacks, but instead decided to play the game as straight as possible.  Which I guess is good if you like your movies as low risk/low reward as possible.

I suppose I should come up with a few original points, huh?  Let’s see.  The movie co-stars Hayley Atwell, who took 2008 as the year to tackle the incredibly specific niche of “The Other Woman In Mostly Failed Oscarbaiting Costume Dramas” as she also fielded that role in Brideshead Revisited.  She’s rather fetching in both films, I thought.  But maybe more importantly, her characters generally added some flavor to the movies, no small feat given the general blandness of the two films.  Indeed, I could see the argument being made that The Duchess could have been more interesting had it focused on her character rather than Knightley’s.

The late, great Fire Joe Morgan blog had this thing about working food metaphors into their posts, so they could add the “food metaphor” tag.  I’m beginning to think I do the same with Starter For Ten.  But surely it is no coincidence that James McAvoy followed starring in that with having a doomed romance with Keira Knightley in Atonement and here Ms. Knightley has doomed romance with Dominic Cooper…who co-starred as McAvoy’s best friend in Starter For Ten.  Ha!  To me, Cooper’s facial features have a certain leonine quality which creep me out a bit, so maybe it isn’t surprising he keeps showing up in these third fiddle roles, but he sure seems to be getting some plum ones (see Mamma Mia!)

Otherwise, the film probably ended up with the Oscar nominations it deserved (Art Direction and Costume Design).  I’m a big Ralph Fiennes fan, and I did think he was pretty great here as the cold husband who just wants a male heir (and to be fair, he was promised Knightley would be good at pumping out a male baby, can you really blame the guy for wanting a contract honored?), but I don’t think he was snubbed, really.  I also like Keira Knightley, sure because she’s breathtakingly pretty, but also because she has actual range.  I’m not advocating Bend It Like Beckham 2, necessarily, but I hope she can add some more non-period films to her slate, maybe even something on the lighter side.

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The thing about The Duchess is that it’s entirely conventional. It’s a genre pic that plays out exactly as you would expect, with the requisite lush art direction and costume porn. The heroine is trapped in a society that doesn’t permit her to marry the one she loves but her big personality allows her to make her mark on society. Normal stuff for bodice-rippers, but ultimately I think this conventional and competent film is pretty good for the genre.

The Duchess is significantly better than the dreadful Elizabeth series. It’s more engrossing and accessible than the usual Jane Austen adaptation. But I think there’s a limit to how much I can like this sort of movie without it taking some risks and trying something different and The Duchess does not. It’s solid and adequate but nothing new.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in the late 18th century. Her marriage to Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) is political with little personal connection between the two. William really just wants a male heir and generally ignores Georgiana otherwise. Her inability to produce an heir sours their relationship further, to the point of occasional physical and emotional brutality. Naturally there’s a strapping young man who captures Georgiana’s heart, Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey. And you already know where this is heading: forbidden love, betrayal, a young woman rebelling against an aristocratic society that prevents her from determining the path of her own life.

I found the public Georgiana more interesting than her private dramas. She was a fashion icon of her time and a very vocal supporter and campaigner for the Whig party, making her a larger public figure than her husband. She was an intelligent woman fairly in tune with her society despite her place in the aristocracy. Maybe I liked these parts because they were a little different. I liked the political scenes more in Elizabeth too, but maybe just as a respite from the mind-numbing personal drama.

Knightley is getting some Best Actress buzz, which I guess is at least better than last year’s buzz for her role in Atonement. She’s gotten quite good at these period pieces and she is good here, though not spectacularly so. If she were to get nominated I would be okay with it though I’d be surprised if there weren’t five performances I end up liking more. Fiennes got even more buzz for his role that mostly required quiet seething punctuated by impressive rage and again I just found him fine. It just wasn’t that interesting. But now he’s going for Supporting Actor for The Reader so his role here will likely move to the back burner. Technical nominations in categories like Costume and Art Direction are expected and deserved.

In movies like this, the heroine generally gets married off to some man who she has little in common with. She’s a romantic, however, and pines after a handsome gentleman who, through class differences, she cannot be with. But she’s a smart woman and despite personal drama she makes her mark on the world. Often her mother is an important supporting character, a realist and strong matriarch who tells the heroine to buck up and get her head out of the clouds because she has certain duties to perform for her husband, country, and/or family. I want to see a movie about that mother for once. Why can’t the heroine be like pretty much every other aristocratic woman of the time and accept her role? Why can’t she understand the politics of marriage and use them in her favor? Why must she spend so much time brooding about love? It’d be nice to have a historical film where the woman can do her thing (lead her country, influence policy, head the royal court/her family, etc…) without spending much of the movie bemoaning her broken heart because, let’s face it, she probably doesn’t know anyone in her social circle who married for love.

I guess when it comes down to it, The Duchess is good assuming the restraints of the genre, but it never challenges those restraints, which I think limits its potential. I can’t help but compare it to Sofia Coppola’s unfairly-derided Marie Anoinette, which tried something different in terms of style, character, and plot. Not everything works in that film, but it’s always interesting and refreshingly different. The Duchess is already solid, I just wish it had some more interesting touches.

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