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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September 18, 2013

Diana

Downfall Director Oliver Hirschbiegel reminds us he also directed The Invasion as he once again comes a cropper working with a famous blonde Australian actress.

Naomi Watts Diana

Diana opens with Naomi Watts’ Sloane Ranger getting into the elevator which will take her to a fatal chase thru a Parisian tunnel. It then jumps back two years to late 1995 with the unsettled Princess preparing for her ‘Queen of Hearts’ TV interview with Martin Bashir, and assiduously hiding this from her adviser Patrick (Charles Edwards). Diana, as she complains to her acupuncturist/psychiatrist Una (Geraldine James), is feeling detached from her children (by Palace meddling only co-ordinating their schedules monthly), hounded by the paparazzi, and generally unloved. When Una’s husband is hospitalised Diana rushes to visit, and falls for Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). But though she visits his family in Pakistan to ask for their blessing can she really marry a workaholic who insists privacy is vital to maintain the concentration he needs as a surgeon?

This, unlike The Invasion, feels like a Hirschbiegel movie. Bookended by showy (and ultimately pointless) tracking shots, his camera roves constantly. But this style and Rainer Klausmann’s narrowly focused cinematography is brought to bear on Stephen Jeffrey’s stilted script. Despite being based on the allegedly true behind the scenes story, you never believe for a second this really happened. Dialogue like Hasnat’s “You don’t perform the operation, the operation performs you” should have been laughed out of the room at the read-thru stage, yet it remains; inciting unintentional hilarity. The longer the movie drags on the more it feels like a Mark Millar comic: history is a cover story, what we know about Diana’s romance with Dodi Al-Fayed was just an elaborate smokescreen created by her, in collusion with a favoured paparazzo, as part of her true romance with Hasnat.

Diana feels tediously endless because talented people are failing to achieve any insight. Watts’ head is pleasingly always tilted at an angle, but she and Andrews can’t make their characters escape the bad 1980s soap opera feel of their secret romance. Every one of their arguments is the same argument, rather like The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and so no dramatic momentum ever builds. The portrayal of Diana’s persona is just too much – especially as this is meant to reveal the woman behind the facade. A scene with a tearful blind man in Rimini joyously touching her face is the nadir: Diana as Jesus meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, power going out from her to console. Diana uses her children as an arguing gambit with Hasnat, but rarely seems to think of them otherwise; her full personality thus remains a mystery.

If you don’t believe that everyone in England was watching the Bashir interview, with entire pubs eschewing watching football or drinking for it, then Diana is not for you…

1.5/5

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