"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Duchess: Oh, the (Beautifully Costumed) Drama

Of course The Duchess is dramatic. Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, led a dramatic life and she herself was a dramatic — and smart, and charismatic — woman. I really liked this movie, but I might have liked it more if it were a slightly broader examination of the Duchess. I don't mean that they should have included more years in her life (I think that would have been a mistake) but the vast majority of the film is about her romantic and reproductive woes. She was a daring, intelligent, and remarkably influential woman during a time when women were expected to be anything but those things. While I liked this sweeping period drama, I might have enjoyed less soap opera and a tad more substance.

The costumes, however, cannot be disputed, for they are devastatingly gorgeous. I would watch this movie over and over with the sound off just to feast my eyes on the clothes. Dressed to perfection in every scene, Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, who marries William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire when she is just a teenager. The marriage is soon strained as it appears that Georgiana will only bear daughters. While the relationship grows bitter in private, Georgiana starts to become quite popular in public and immerses herself in the world of politics and high society. She's a natural charmer and trend-setter, though her husband puts more and more distance between them, choosing other women over his wife. Before long, Georgiana finds herself falling in love with a young politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but the threat of scandal proves too great for the Duke and Duchess and a relationship with Charles is forbidden. There's much more to the story, but I won't spoil things for you.

Knightley strongly carries the film with her focused, honest portrayal of the brightly alluring yet unfortunate Duchess of Devonshire, and if she veers into melodrama it’s because the material clearly calls for it. She’s still a relatively young actress, which I think people sometimes forget, and while she still appears young onscreen (with that permanently youthful bounce in her step, a fresh energy to even her most morose scenes), there is so much potential there for her to mature into a truly phenomenal performer. She acts with her entire body, conveying emotion in the tiniest details: her whole frame rigid with rage, a coquettish tip of her head and a sidelong glance, the utterly distraught balling up of one fist . . . these things inform our understanding of Georgiana's emotional landscape.

Most of the time I cringed and tsk-tsked at the wretchedness of this poor young woman’s life, as the story is basically a long string of relationship issues and anxiety over pregnancies. There are countless historical movies that, if they center on a woman at all, focus on the pressure to conceive a male heir, the havoc this wreaks on a marriage, and the power plays that arise between the women who can conceive and those who cannot. This is understandable, given the nature of society back then, and yet here’s a story with some built-in political drama as well, with a fearless, deeply inspiring female protagonist. I would have appreciated more of that story.

That said, I was riveted to this movie, intoxicated by the costumes and just as smitten with the Duchess as the rest of England seems to be. It’s a beautiful and sad film that is well worth seeing.

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