Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Duchess: Bird in a cage

The Duchess (2008) • View trailer for The Duchess
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, sensuality and rape
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.9.08
Buy DVD: The Duchess • Buy Blu-Ray: The Duchess [Blu-ray]

Ah, the good ol' days, in Merry Olde England ... when men were men, and women were chattel.

Both a sumptuous period piece and a meaty dramatic vehicle for Keira Knightley, The Duchess also is, above all else, a terribly sad story. This fascinating glimpse of Georgiana Spencer, the famed 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, reveals that even London's most admired and imitated woman had no actual rights in an era when an aristocrat's wife existed for precisely one purpose: procreation.
The setting is benign, but appearances can be deceiving: Georgiana (Keira
Knightley, far right), having given birth to two daughters, gets no sympathy
even from her mother (Charlotte Rampling, far left) when the Duke of
Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) openly takes his wife's best friend, Bess (Hayley
Atwell) as a live-in mistress.

British director Saul Dibb's film — scripted by Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, and adapted from Amanda Foreman's acclaimed biography — casually and coldly presents an environment so repressed, so callous and so outrageously unfair, that modern viewers are apt to greet many of these details with disbelieving horror.

(Worse still, some cretins in last week's Sacramento preview audience, under the mistaken notion that such particulars were exaggerated for comic effect, snickered and laughed openly at all the wrong moments. Rarely have I wished more ferociously for a time machine, and the means to cast such Philistines back a few centuries ... on a one-way trip.)

Bad enough that the spirited and obviously intelligent Georgiana, far more passionate about the politics of the day than her blandly taciturn husband — a memorably malignant performance by Ralph Fiennes, about whom more in a moment — was forced to do little but sit and listen as the members of her beloved Whig party debated issues such as citizen freedom.

Worse still, for the "crime" of having borne her husband two daughters, that Georgiana had no choice but to tolerate her husband's decision to maintain an open ménage à trois with her best and only friend, Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster (Hayley Atwell), who was allowed — at the Duke's insistence — to live with them, as a sort of at-will courtesan, for the rest of the Duchess' life.

The first dinner scene, after this arrangement is set in stone — with the Duke and Duchess at opposite ends of an imposingly long table, and Elizabeth at the midpoint of one side, between them — is a chill nightmare.

"I demanded only two things from you, when we married," the Duke coldly tells Georgiana, on more than one occasion, "loyalty and an heir."

Blessed with a petite frame and figure that seem right at home in this era of tiny shoes and corseted waists, Knightley is introduced as 17-year-old Georgiana and several friends place a friendly wager on which of half a dozen eager young gentlemen will win a footrace. She exchanges significant glances with the winner, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but whatever might have come to pass evaporates in the wake of a meeting between Georgiana's mother (Charlotte Rampling) and William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, who barter the girl's finer points as if she were a horse.

Suddenly, Georgiana is a 17-year-old duchess. She clearly wishes to please her husband, at least initially, and obediently embraces her "marital duties" during the first of many scenes that reveal Knightley's acting range. Dibb holds the camera on her face as the Duke guides his new wife to bed the first time; a close-up this tight is unforgiving, but the young actress sells the moment, her reaction a poignant blend of fear, uncertainty, blind trust and hope.

Within days, though, Georgiana learns the truth of her husband's "devotion." She first catches him with a servant girl; later, and more forcefully, the young daughter of some previous assignation (unexpectedly deceased) comes to live with them permanently. The Duke figures Georgiana will ignore the child, Charlotte, who will be raised by servants in some sequestered part of the castle; the duchess, because she's incapable of blaming the little girl — and perhaps also as a subtle means of spiting her husband — embraces Charlotte as her own child.

One wonders, particularly in light of the duke's behavior as this story progresses, why he'd bother to worry about this bastard child. The question remains unanswered; although Fiennes' performance is carefully nuanced and quite haunting, we get no back- story on William, and therefore no means by which to judge his behavior ... except to recognize that while he might be a monster by modern standards, he's really only a typical product of his aristocratic times and lineage.

And probably kinder and gentler than most, as far as that goes. (Now there's a terrifying thought!)

Georgiana's rapid rise to high-society "it girl" — her wardrobe and hair admired and copied by every woman who met her (and small wonder, given the sumptuous work done here by costume designer Michael O'Connor) — is presaged by a flirty remark she makes to William, as he struggles to remove all her garments during that first wedding night.

Men, she explains, can express themselves in all sorts of ways; women can make statements solely by their appearance.

Not entirely true, at least in Georgiana's case. Although constricted at home, her ability to draw a crowd — to influence people — becomes increasingly important to the members of the Whig party, who come to rely on her presence. For a time, at least, this story allows Georgiana some piquant observations that would be right at home if spoken by a Jane Austen heroine, and the duchess takes advantage of her husband's apolitical nature to drink and gamble with the best of the castle's frequent high-society guests.

Time passes; Georgiana gives William two children ... both daughters. Bess enters the story at this point: a chance acquaintance at a party who rebuffs a clumsy advance from William, and then chats candidly with Georgiana. The two become friends; the duchess feels sorry for Bess, a divorcée (rare, in these times) very badly treated by a husband who has beaten her and refused to let her see her own three sons.

Georgiana slyly tricks William into inviting Bess to stay with them for an indeterminate period, a gracious gesture our heroine will come to regret. Georgiana makes the mistake of failing to appreciate the degree to which Bess truly means it, when she insists that a mother will do anything for her children.

To make matters even worse, as Georgiana sinks even further into her loveless marriage, Charles reappears: a passionate, rapidly rising member of the Whig party. With his ardent dreams of a better world — and a temperament perfectly suited to Georgiana — he represents everything that she can't have, and never will have.

Because while an aristocratic husband can flaunt a mistress with impunity, his wife most certainly is not allowed the same extra-marital license.

Given her role as a highly decorated bird in a golden cage, Knightley gets numerous opportunities for tragic glances and repressed, flinty-eyed contempt. Indeed, because of the minimal dialogue that passes between William and Georgiana — the man simply doesn't talk much — both actors are forced to sell their characters via nuanced body language and their expressive features.

Knightley does so, and quite successfully; she silently but persuasively conveys the tragedy of Georgiana's daily existence, from the quiet rage as she's forced to adapt to Bess' presence, or — later in the story — a heartbreaking sequence when she must face a "punishment" that no mother should be forced to endure.

We tend to forget, thanks to those three fluffy Pirates of the Caribbean entries, that Knightley really can act; her work here is a logical next step for the actress who impressed us so much in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement.

Fiennes, long an established master of subtle acting, does his best to bury Knightley, if only because the story demands that he do so. He pretty much succeeds; under William's coldly repressive thumb, the candle of Georgiana's spirit burns lower and lower, until it's finally snuffed out completely.

This film's most serious flaw is its brevity; at 105 minutes, it can't come close to addressing the complexity of Georgiana Spencer and (particularly) William Cavendish, or the period in which they lived. This screenplay is a decade-long snapshot that pays only brief lip service to world events such as America's bid for freedom and the imminent French Revolution, and completely ignores (for starters) the crisis in England precipitated by King George's descent into madness, and the concurrent rise in literacy and the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

Observant viewers may take note of Georgiana's troubling tendency toward an extra glass of wine at dinner, but even the closing screen text fails to mention the degree to which alcoholism would hasten her eventual decline, or the fact that she'd die in debt — thanks to her gambling — to the tune of what would be $6 million in modern currency.

Nor, for that matter, do those closing-credit text notes mention that Georgiana Spencer was the great-great-great-great aunt of another equally tragic Spencer: the former Princess Diana.

I guess there's something to be said for leaving us wanting more, and perhaps all concerned recognized that the fresh-faced Knightley, despite her many talents, might not be convincing as Georgiana aged.

Ah, well. All the more reason to read Foreman's biography, right?

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