Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Duchess

Keira Knightley is Georgiana Cavendish, a forward thinking, trend setting, hard gambling, liquor holding, politically active, weak-knee inducing, headstrong beauty that men not only desire, but admire and respect; unfortunately, the one man whom she most desires to feel love and affection from remains aloof and emotionally flat: her husband. Having married the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) through an arrangement procured by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), Georgiana fully realizes that the primary goal of their union is to produce a male heir for the Duke, but she also assumes that the union will produce, for her and her husband, the typical emotions, intimacy and companionship associated with matrimony, however, as time passes, her assumptions become more and more obscured within a cloud of doubt. Focusing her efforts to find an outlet for her passion in other venues, Georgiana becomes a highly respected member of the aristocracy, celebrated by men and women alike for her beauty, fashion forward designs, and for helping to instigate political change as a vociferous supporter of the Whig Party, but as her passions find more room for expansion in outside endeavors, the more difficult it is to reign them in for her oppressive home life, eventually leading Georgiana to risk her entire existence by sharing her passions with a man other than the Duke.

Months ago, when I saw the first preview, I knew it would be impossible for me to be objective in any assessment regarding the film, considering I'm a ridiculously huge fan of Keira Knightley's and I think Ralph Fiennes is an amazing actor; not to mention that a well done period piece is easily one of my favorite types of films. I liked this movie even before the acne-ridden facial hair attempting ticket taker had finished placing my newly and curiously sticky ticket stub in my hand while incorrectly informing me which auditorium to proceed to. Fortunately, my ability to read small print and large L.E.D. displays coupled with my command of the numbers 1 through 20 helped me to deduce that the proper auditorium was actually upstairs to the right and not downstairs to the left, and although getting past the challenge of the architecturally dyslexic door sentry was exciting in it's own right, it was nothing compared to the anticipation that I was already feeling for the film. In other words, because of my predispositions, the movie would have had to have been on the level of one of the incredibly embarrassing church Nativity plays that I was obligated to participate in as a child, for me to have even remotely entertained the thought of disliking it. As it turned out, I did my best to watch the movie while ignoring my prejudice, and I'm fairly certain that the film was excellent on it's own, with no help from me. I thought the story was well told, the costumes and settings were amazingly opulent and the attention to detail was staggering, and even though I would have appreciated a few grand and sweeping shots, in the end, the director, Saul Dibb, made the wisest choice in keeping the shots succinct and precise and allowing the drama to be carried out by the actors in their richly detailed settings. There's a lot to be said for a director who actually relies on the cast to relay the story while avoiding inflated shots which, at first, might add some additional depth to a production but, when included with such an already decadent world, could very easily cross the line into flamboyance and lose any intimacy previously created with the audience.

Keira Knightley puts forth an Oscar worthy performance (in my biased opinion) as she solidly displays the gamut of emotions that her character experiences throughout the course of the film. The innocence, insecurities and curiosity that slowly becomes experience, confidence and determination mixed with a healthy dose of indomitable spirit are all made manifest by Knightley's subtly intense honesty as she uses her ethereal qualities to seemingly channel a personality from a bygone era. Perfectly complimenting Knightley's earnest performance is Ralph Fiennes' equally nuanced but substantially more delicate execution. Initially, Fiennes' character of the Duke seems completely disinterested in absolutely everything, but, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the Duke's rigidity is generations in the making and only a very limited number of precisely defined and refined distractions could ever see their way past his stoic and impenetrable demeanor. A lesser actor than Fiennes might have easily been overwhelmed by the Duke's apathetic distraction, ending up with only a "phoned in" performance, but Fiennes is incredibly diligent in presenting a measured indifference which makes the scenes where the Duke genuinely exhibits emotions that much more powerful and threatening. As for the supporting cast, rather than appearing as if they were there only to "support" the main characters, a pleasant, almost symbiotic, relationship existed, allowing each member of the cast to come across as a unique individual with possibly a story of their own worth telling while weaving in and out of the audience's perception.

Obviously I enjoyed this film, the story that was told and the people who told it. I'm not sure I'd say it was a powerful film, although there were some very moving aspects and certain scenes did invoke patterns of thought that stayed with me for several days. I definitely think this is a film worth seeing (theater, if only for the details), but I also understand that a historical drama is simply too much for some people. That's too bad but, then again, I can't imagine anyone who appreciates a well told story, regardless of historical time period, not enjoying this film, at least to some degree. So, if the opportunity presents itself, do take advantage of the situation and see this movie whether it's in the theater or elsewhere. I have several friends who will doubtlessly wait for the release on disc or pay-per-view or, most probably, borrow mine since they know I'll be adding it to my collection, which seems to be a regular occurrence after they read one of my one-sided conversations. Weird, huh?