Talking Movies

August 7, 2018

From the Archives: The Duchess

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up an English period drama with many wonderful moments that never cohered into a wonderful whole.

Photo by Peter Mountain

Keira Knightley tramples all over memories of her turn in Pride & Prejudice by showing us the dark side preceding Jane Austen’s Regency era. Indeed The Duchess begins at the point where an Austen novel would end, as Georgina (Knightley) is married to the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in the film’s pre-title opening sequence. Any romantic notions the teenage bride has are instantly dispatched after the wedding ceremony as the Duke dismisses Georgina’s servants and uses a scissors to quickly strip her naked and get on with the business of producing an heir for the Devonshire estate.

The publicity for this film has made painfully obvious the parallels between Georgina Spencer’s marriage and that of her great great great great niece Princess Diana as the Duke soon introduces Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as the third person in their marriage. The Duke even echoes Prince Charles late in the film when, protesting his love to a stunned Georgina, he quickly clarifies “I love you in my understanding of love”, just as Charles infamously told the media shortly before his marriage that he loved Diana, “whatever love is”. That is one of the few explicit references in the film though which instead deserves much praise for recreating the mores of the period and keeping characters spouting anachronistic modern values to a minimum. It is a particular joy to see the Whig leader Fox and the Irish politician, playwright and gambler Richard Brinsley Sheridan appear in support as Georgina’s friends. She brings an air of glamour to their electioneering while they value her in a way the Duke does not.

Atwell is magnificent in being both hero and villain of the story as she plays the game of Regency society while Charlotte Rampling is utterly chilling as Lady Spencer, sacrificing her daughter’s happiness on the altar of duty. The Duke is as cold a figure as we’ve seen in quite some time but Ralph Fiennes excellently hints at a humanity that is only occasionally glimpsed beneath the cold aristocratic exterior. And he does get to deliver the immortal line “Please put out her Grace’s hair”. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can get a confident performance from Knightley and her performance here suffers from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as her tendency to be a bit brittle in her acting surfaces from time to time.

Though replete with splendid individual scenes there are times when The Duchess drags badly as they don’t quite cohere into a driving narrative. However when Georgina’s ménage a trois comes to a crisis the film shifts up a gear with a heartbreaking scene that owes a lot to Brief Encounter and Brokeback Mountain. While not equalling their impact this is still worth seeing for a more brutal take on Georgian love.

3/5

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