Fri, Feb 20, 2009 - Page 16 News List

Your grace

Saul Dibb’s girdle-and-garter outing falls short on exploring the Georgian social environment and the woman behind the enigma that was Georgiana Cavendish

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

VIEW THIS PAGE Following in the footsteps of Kirsten Dunst, who managed to turn the fall of the house of Bourbon into a teenage coming-of-age romp in Marie Antoinette (2006), albeit one that ended in a beheading, Keira Knightly has stepped up to the block by taking on the role of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the lady of another great house who had a less than delightful time in her marriage. Unfortunately, it also means a less than delightful time in the cinema, despite all the splendid clothes and long, lingering shots of the sumptuous interiors of great Georgian houses.

Georgiana, after her marriage to the peculiar William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, became known for her advanced social views and unconventional domestic arrangements. She was one of those grand hostesses of Georgian England who played a significant behind the scenes role in greasing

the wheels of political and social intercourse.

Unfortunately, the director Saul Dibb seems utterly unable, or at least unwilling, to go beyond the topic of sexual intercourse. There was also a good deal of that going on as well in the second half of the 18th century, both inside and outside the facade of respectable marriages, but the fact that a marriage into the immense wealth and political power of the Cavendish family was motivated not by love but by political and financial considerations, seems to outrage the director.

Is Dibb trying to draw parallels with another unhappy marriage that was dealt with

in The Queen (2006), an infinitely superior film. Georgiana was a member of the Spencer family, as was the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and was also much loved, though not by her husband.









Knightly is perfectly competent in the role of Georgiana. She showed some talent in the period drama Pride and Prejudice (2005) — before losing herself in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise — but in The Duchess she is not given adequate tools to work with, and to a large extent ends up a mere clotheshorse. Make no mistake, this is a sumptuous production and the outfits are really splendid. The one actually erotic scene, not surprisingly, focuses more on clothes than on bodies.

Apart from a few throwaway lines intended to suggest Georgiana’s interest in the world around her and canny intellect in interpreting what she sees, the qualities that made her a force in society are never revealed. And even in the gentlemen around her, one gets almost nothing other than doe-eyed indignation at thwarted love by characters such as Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), one

of the most forceful politicians of his age, and vaguely flirtatious behavior from Charles James Fox (Simon McBurney), another formidable member of the political elite. These peripheral figures are relegated to nothing more than a bewigged backdrop for Georgiana’s victimization at the hands of an abominable husband, who goes so far as to make a mistress of his wife’s best friend, and who expected the two women to live amicably under the same roof. It is something that the historical duke in fact achieved, but The Duchess gives us little insight into the social context in which such an arrangement could be realized.

The production is given some backbone by Ralph Fiennes as the Duke, who as one of the most powerful and richest peers in England had little need to concern himself with the opinion of others. His utter weirdness is remarkably convincing, as are the attitudes of Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana’s mother. Their efforts lift The Duchess slightly, but ultimately the director’s belief that a second rate romance dressed up in crinolines makes a historical drama is the production’s undoing. If you like gorgeous clothes, spectacular hats and resplendent architecture, there is plenty to enjoy in this film, but don’t expect much more.VIEW THIS PAGE

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