Monday, December 29, 2008

THE DUCHESS: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Saul Ribb
Runtime: 104 min.
Rating: *
Genre: Drama, History

        City names are fine, years are fine, but when you have the kids names popping up on placards, we’ve got a royal problem.
        The Annual Bosom-Heaving Bodice-Ripping contest this year is a three-way race between Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson (both for The Other Boleyn Girl) and Keira Knightley, for this film here. You would assume Ms. Johansson to win it hands down, and you would be wrong for Ms. Knightley, against all expectations, takes the honors fair and square for this 18th Century snoozefest, an extended daily soap opera masquerading as a period piece. You might seek a point here in this tale of Georgiana The Duchess of Devonshire where there’s none to find, apart from I suppose an allusion to the late Princess Diana, who I learn was her descendant. The problem though, is the same as I find with most other period pieces, we get a history lesson where the tour guide isn’t good at even making stuff up, and we learn that stuff not gradually but via a news-like screenplay. We get an exhibition of corsets, of wigs, of hats. We see handsome pictures framed with the most obvious artifice, desperately seeking a soul with no apparent success. We see carefully spoken dialog, which don’t seem as if spoken by people, and instead betray the fact that they have been learnt by heart, and then uttered verbatim. Providing us insight then is a matter of a different planet altogether.
        But you see, I don’t mind the film for being such an interminable inert bore. Who cares, who loves whom and who marries whom, and then who loves whom, and then who cries. Who cares if one predicts everything ten minutes in advance? It happens all the time, in all kinds of households. Nothing new, you know. That is why they have that word – adultery. What I am appalled at though, is the sense of humor. Has that famous British humor escaped them? Because if it hasn’t, how can anybody even think of making a drama out of this script and keep a straight face at the same time? Get a load off this. Georgiana (Knightley) is hardly eighteen when The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) lays her eyes on her. You might assume, as I did, that it was out of Ms. Knightley’s beauty. But no, that might not be the case, because all the Duke wants is a vending machine for a young duke. Seriously, something wrong with the dude..er..Duke. You might assume he would at least seek some enjoyment out of the whole deal on the wedding night, but the Duke’s exclusive mission seems to pump out the long elusive mail heir. Ralph Fiennes seems so stiff in his role I half suspect his character on the page seems to be a rather bad case of indigestion.
        Now wait, wait. It doesn’t end there. One year down the line, and Georgiana pops out a beautiful little girl. The Duke is flabbergasted. He gets down to playing with the only thing he seems to enjoy in his life – his dogs. But his resolve seems to be forged out of iron. He gets down to the pumping business one more times, and Georgiana pops out one more. A girl I mean, and what cute little girls they are. Scorecard reads two out of two. Or zero out of two. Depends on whether you’re an optimist or otherwise. Spare a thought for the Duke, and his wife who might be the laughing stock of every household. I don’t know about you, but I would have preferred a film made out of one of those households.
        And the Duke grows stiffer, and his iron will grows stronger. He pumps two more times, and there’re two miscarriages. Now, whatever way you look at it, the scorecard reads zero out of four. The Duke is so out of his wits he chases his wife down the galleries of his huge house, and this time pumps against her will. The cries of her despair reverberate through every corner of the house, and the result is success, finally. Scorecard, one out of five. Now I know the moral of the story – try, try, and try again. But don’t, for god sake, replace this story for the Robert Bruce and his spider one. You never know about kids with their bright minds, they might get all sorts of bad ideas. I wish the film were that bright, and at least had a sense of humor.
        And the problem it still doesn’t end there. The Duke is nothing more than a humping hound, game for any woman around, any woman, other than of course The Duchess. This exasperates her, and it all finally explodes when The Duke is found in bed with her best friend, who has nowhere to go because her husband beats her and has taken possession of her kids and is not letting her meet them and she wants to save them and she is ready to go to any length for them and that is why she wants to stay with them. And, the marriage gets promoted from a bicycle to a tricycle. And not to mention the most ridiculous intimate scene of the year, one that occurs between the Duchess and her best friend.
        Keira Knightley now seems to have grown adept at these costume dramas as she sleepwalks through them, just as Jason Statham does through B-grade actioners. See, I get that Georgiana was famous for her fashion statements, and her social engagements, and her fierce involvement in political causes, including campaigning. But how? How did her popularity manage to seep into every crevice of every wall in town? How did the people get smitten by her charm? That would’ve made an interesting film, a journey about a young girl thrown into the limelight blossoming into a lady, and her stature and her popularity growing wider. But then, that would have required imagination, an understanding, a sense of history, and some effort to go out of the conventional way that approaches history as mere costume soap operas with the same dumb dynamics we’ve grown tired of watching a million times on the television. Instead the film employs that same approach we have grown tired of – the story of a woman imprisoned in her life used as a tool to make bland jabs at feminism.

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