Saturday, November 22, 2008

Review: "The Duchess" Grade: A-

Disclaimer: These are not reviews I write and revise and make better. I seriously just type my thoughts and post them. I don't want people to think I actually think these are well written. Eventually I would like to work on making actually good reviews but for now writing out all of my thoughts is enough for me.

Review: "The Duchess"
Grade: A-

I was not expecting a lot out of “The Duchess”. This was something I went into moderately interested in but expecting an OK movie laden with the clichés of the period film. What I got was a film that went way beyond my expectations and showed me a sincere and heartbreaking portrait of a woman who endures so much, lives through it and cannot break out of any of the situations she gets into because of the status of women in the 1700’s and let’s be honest, far beyond that point. This film succeeds in the way it does primarily due to the two lead performances by Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

“The Duchess” tells the extraordinary story of the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish. She is married off to the Duke played by Ralph Fiennes. She is excited about the marriage because she is naïve and idealistic about what marriage is in her mind. To the Duke the marriage is a business arrangement made so the Duke can produce a male heir. Nothing more. The Duke is unrelentingly cold to her throughout the movie. He has sex with her when he wants to and is not caring towards her vulnerability. What is refreshing about this portrayal is that the film does not view the Duke as this pure evil being. He basically is pure evil and the film does not try to really lend him any sympathy. However the film has the perspective of the customs of the time so The Duke’s actions are all acceptable, not because the film thinks they are but because it is looking at things through the perspective of the 1700’s. Georgiana talks to her mother about it and she sees it as a minor inconvenience a woman has to deal with. Women just had to deal with it. The Duke has sex with whomever he wants and Georgiana as well. She has difficulty producing a male heir and The Duke becomes more frustrated with her. At the same time, she is becoming a fashion icon, an activist for women’s rights and the Whig party. She makes a best friend, Bess who she cherishes as the one person she has to herself. Bess ends up living with Georgiana and the Duke because her husband will not let her see her children. Georgiana discovers that Bess and the Duke are having an affair. Bess feels awful about it but says it is the only way she can see her kids. So The Duke and Bess and Georgiana live in the house together and she has to deal with it because she has no say. She finally says she will give them her blessing if The Duke agrees to acknowledge the feelings she has for Charles Grey. He freaks out because he cannot believe she has the gall to suggest she has any right to propose a deal. He says she has not been living up to her duties as a wife; to be loyal and to produce a male heir. He then rapes her and ta-da!! A male heir. How nice. She eventually carries on an affair with Charles Grey which The Duke finds out about and tells her if she does not come back she will never see her kids again. At first she does not go but she cannot give up her children and she has to go back. She has a daughter by Charles Grey which The Duke makes her give up. The film ends with Georgiana getting to be with her kids but to be stuck in a loveless marriage with a husband who she hates, has raped her, uses her for sex, makes her give up her child, etc, while his mistress is her best friend who also lives in the house. This arrangement continued until her death at the age of 48.

I never take films that are meant to be based on fact to be true in any way. Yes the film is historically accurate (although it barely touches on her drinking and gambling problem and never goes into her drug use) so the events are true but obviously we really do not know what these people were like and if these were the feelings of the parties involved. So I never take that into consideration and I just try to see the film as if it were a fictional story. However outside of the fact that we do not know the feelings of the people involved, just looking at these concrete events is astounding. This woman had such courage.

There are so many aspects of the film that are handled so well. The perspective it takes on things is one. The film presents Georgiana’s situation not as a particularly out of the ordinary one (outside of the Bess situation) but as a situation that was just the way things were at the time and the difference is that this woman was famous, important and went through a hell of a lot. I will refer to the scenes when Georgiana talks with her mother about sex. Even she does not wonder why she has to put up with a man having sex with her when he pleases but because he is so distant towards her and because he is rough. Her mother, as I said passes it off as it is something we have to deal with and eventually you learn to live with it. An inconvenience is what it is. The mother is not meant to be an evil character either. She is a loving mother who lives in the 1700’s and has a completely different perspective on things. What this nonchalant “oh it’s just a part of life” attitude does for the viewer is really point out how little say women had at the time to the point where the women do not on a regular basis understand really how wrong it is.

What this adds up to is a reason I respect the film so much is because it does not have characters that are written in a way where the mindset of the characters is not modern to such a large extent which is so often the case with period films. These characters function as people in the 1700’s who see things in the way they were then or at least as much as I’ve seen a film be able to do this. This is a huge success in my opinion and something most period films cannot accomplish to the degree this one did.

I really felt Georgiana’s plight and the inescapability of her situation. The film really puts you in her place and lets you see how stuck she was and you feel that. You feel the frustration and the anger and the helplessness of it. This is due to Keira Knightley’s performance. I figured people were talking about it because it was her but she gives by far her best performance here. It is an astoundingly mature and impressive performance that I honestly did not think she was capable of. Several scenes are of note. One is when the Duke first has sex with her. She perfectly captures the vulnerability, confusion and objectification of her situation as he cuts off her clothes, stares at her, tells her to go over to the bed and then has rough, cold, distant sex with her as she is a deer in headlights and in pain. It is one of the great scenes of the year and one of the best acted scenes I’ve seen this year. Another scene is when she has to give her child away. I know that the Best Actress category is jam packed this year. We have Meryl Streep, Melissa Leo, Kristen Scott Thomas, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Sally Hawkins, Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale (for Nothing But the Truth and not Snow Angels unfortunately) and Cate Blanchett. “The Duchess” did not get good enough reviews to get Knightley in the Best Actress category and if this were a semi empty year she would get it but there are 6 performances here that are apparently ridiculously strong. No matter the competition I’d like her to get in. I think she deserves it and I’ll be whole heartedly disappointed if she is not recognized in some way for her work here as I was truly truly moved by it.

Luckily Ralph Fiennes has a slightly larger chance of getting recognized with a nomination of Best Supporting Actor as The Duke of Devonshire. His portrayal of The Duke is actually what elevates this film into being much more notable. He could have been portrayed as a straight up villain. While he has no redeeming acts in the film, he is not portrayed as a one-note villain but as one that has a lot going on inside of his head. He is someone who does not really enjoy doing the things he does but he does them anyways without hesitation. Yet he cares about Georgiana in a very strange and subtle way; in a way that is barely noticeable and barely there but does exist even if it is small. The Duke is sad and alone despite having both Georgiana and Bess. He connects more to his dogs than with everyone else. Fiennes’ performance is remarkable, another one that I hope is not forgotten for a nomination come Oscar time. The scenes involving just Fiennes and Knightley are ripe for character analysis, easily some of the best scenes I’ve seen in a movie this year. These are two remarkable performances.

The rest of the cast is great too. I always get excited to see Charlotte Rampling who can do no wrong. Hayley Atwell pulls off a tough role, as the traitor to Georgiana but we still have to sympathize with her. Dominic Cooper was Ok as Grey. He definitely was not bad but if I had to pick a weak link it would be him. Again, it is not that he is bad; I just do not think he has a lot of presence on screen.

The music which at first I felt was typical period piece music, by the end had become enough of a theme where I became slightly nostalgic for it and could easily associate it with the movie in a good way. By the end it really became part of the film for me. The costumes are incredible. Georgiana was a fashion icon of sorts in the day so the costumes she wears are suitably delightful and impressive to see.

The movie was perfectly paced, nothing went on for too long and the film moved spent the right amount of time on everything. More time could have been spent on Georgiana and Grey but that would have taken away from her and the Duke which is where the real focus ought to have been and rightfully it was. A slight complaint.

In conclusion I went in expecting little from this a typical period piece film which is the way some people saw it. What elevated this into a special category was the refreshing change of the film and characters having the perspective of the 1700’s and not modern times. This is rarely done and made the situations more horrific because of the characters and how they function within them as members of England in the 1700’s. None of the characters are one dimensional; each has a point of view and/or layers that contain some manner of death. The performances of Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes make this movie. Knightley puts us through what she goes through and has the ability to let us know what she is thinking at any moment without saying anything. She gives a performance of maturity and depth that officially allows me to take her ery seriously as an actress. Ralph Fiennes is remarkable as well giving a performance that elevates the film into a special status but not playing him as a one note villain but as someone full of layers and depth that are hinted at in such a way that even though his acts are pure evil and we are given no real reason to sympathize with him at all, calling him the bad guy seems wrong. This is not an easy feat. I went into this expecting little. I feel the reviews for the film do not reflect how good the film really is. This took me by surprise and “The Duchess” is a very moving and extremely well done film, showing me something in the period film that I have not seen for a long time.

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