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British Cinema, Film Reviews, Melodrama

The Duchess (UK/Fr/Italy 2008)

A fine hat for Georgiana

A fine hat for Georgiana

I wasn’t expecting to go and see The Duchess, but it was the only film worth seeing in a 40 mile radius on a Saturday night. It turned out not to be the film I’d expected and I did find it interesting and quite enjoyable – but it’s an odd film in many ways.

I first saw the trailer earlier in the year and I had it pegged as a film that attempted to present Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as the 18th century equivalent of Kate Moss. Not being a follower of the Diana cult, I’ve been fairly oblivious to those connections, but Georgiana was a Spencer and this seems to have been the angle sold in the US. There is something of this celebrity culture discourse in the film, but more of several other genres as well. Some of the reviews I’ve read assert quite confidently that this is a ‘costume drama’. But what exactly is a costume drama, apart obviously from a drama in period costume? It isn’t enough to just assert a single genre. Keira Knightley has appeared in several earlier films in a variety of costumes. Is Atonement a costume drama – or Pride and Prejudice? Costume dramas could focus on personal relationships – as melodramas or romances – or historical/political events or even on action/adventure (often as a ‘swashbuckler’ in 16th-18th century settings).

The genre repertoires which this film should perhaps be expected to raid are the traditional biopic and the literary adaptation. But the film narrative seemingly draws on only around 18 years of Georgiana’s life (roughly from marriage at 17 up until 35). No attempt is made to age Keira Knightley or to date precisely the events that are represented, so historical/biographical accuracy is not a major concern. Overall, I thought Knightley did well with the material she was given, but I couldn’t really believe she was a mother of four children. In terms of make-up and hair, she cuts a very striking figure and she has the bone structure to go with the accent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the body shape for some of the dresses. I haven’t read Amanda Foreman’s book, but I remember it being serialised on Radio 4 – it seemed a lot more interesting in terms of Georgiana’s actions than what was displayed in the film. So, I don’t think the film attempts to replicate the book. (The book is doing very well in the charts, so in that sense, the story is attracting an audience in similar ways to Jane Austen.)

It could be a melodrama certainly. There are all the family arguments and emotional turmoil that one could wish for and this period is definitely well-suited to melodrama (e.g. in all the sensationalist films in late 1940s British Cinema from Gainsborough Studios). (The real Georgiana was painted by both Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.) There is plenty of music as well – far too much I think for a straight drama. But it doesn’t add up to a melodrama. Somehow the film is ‘cold’ where it should be passionate. Jonathan Romney complains about too much gawping at stately homes and he could be right.

If it isn’t a melodrama, it also isn’t a romance. The ‘real’ ending prevents the feelgood closure that a romance might want to present. My hope, early on in the movie, was that Georgiana would be presented as a proto-feminist, a catalyst for reforming (male) politicians. For a moment, it seems that she might be, but then it slips away. (For those outside the UK, you should know that the Duke of Devonshire (aka William Cavendish) was one of the richest men in England, oddly owning not Devonshire, but large chunks of Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire as well as property in London. I seem to have spent much of my life on streets named after the Devonshires/Cavendishes and I would have liked to have seen the family more exposed. Ralph Fiennes does a great job of portraying the brutal man who has the low cunning and inbred nous of the powerful and wealthy. He teeters on the edge of being a human being and the portrayal is ripe with possibilities that the script in the end does not exploit. You can see the problems. How do you explain the complicated politics of late 18th century Europe (and America) to a mass cinema audience? The real Georgiana got married in 1774 and Eliza was born in 1792 – you couldn’t work this out from a film in which the French Revolution is discussed as a probability, but then dropped (and the American Revolution is barely mentioned at all). (It occurred to me that the most common banana variety was probably named after the Cavendish family and I found this reference. I don’t know how the Cavendishes amassed their wealth, but it would be surprising if there were no American or Caribbean trading interests.) 

Saul Dibb does a pretty good job of direction (several US reviewers refer to him rather sniffily as ‘inexperienced’, despite his having made a successful feature in Bullet Boy, plus documentaries and a major TV series) and it’s nicely photographed by the Hungarian cinematographer of Fateless, Gyula Pados. 

I was intrigued by the production in a commercial sense. I’d expected there to be Hollywood money in it, but there are two small independents (UK and US) with BBC Films and Pathe as partners plus Pathé’s French partner company and BIM from Italy as distribution partners. Presumably, this guarantees French and Italian distribution and perhaps other European territories. I’m guessing the budget as relatively modest – perhaps $10-$12 million? It’s done very well in the UK with $10 million plus after 5 weeks of wide release. In the US it is ‘platforming’ and also doing well. After 4 weeks it is now on 1200 screens with $5.6 million so far. However, I don’t think it will manage the worldwide success of Pride and Prejudice.

Perhaps I’ll go back and watch Marie Antoinette again. It might make an interesting (but long) double bill with The Duchess and offer us two contrasting 18th century stories of young female celebrities.

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