Monday, 8 September 2008

To be that free ...

She doesn't look that free, the Duchess of Devonshire, does she? To be so imprisoned in her stays and laces, petticoats and fripperies. To be so weighed down by the weight of her clothes and even her hair, as though fashionable society had decreed that a woman's position must be mirrored in the manner in which she dressed.

I have just returned from watching The Duchess. Anyone who has chanced to read this blog before, will no doubt have come across a vitriolic post against Keira Knightley and the dismal hopes I had of her making even a passable attempt in the film. I find, now, that I am in a different frame of mind.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for my then university newspaper, completely ripping to shreds a certain adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It was not just Keira Knightley who annoyed me, I think only Judi Dench and Brenda Blethyn escaped unscathed. However, it was Keira who bore the brunt of my anger, because I felt she had been unable to remove her own presence from the role she played. The smirky, pouting, stick thin young girl of the red carpet was the person we saw, not Elizabeth Bennett.

In The Duchess, Keira Knightly has, at least for the most part, managed to become someone else.

It's an outstanding film. The script is a gem - multi-faceted and not weighed down with other adornments. The romantic elements of the plot intermingle well with the political and social elements, and neither feel overdone. There are some costume dramas that attempt to make too much of the political setting in which characters find themselves, and end up simply dull. The costumes too were wonderful. In an age when what one wore mattered a great deal, it was clear that the wardrobe department had gone to a great deal of expense. If someone would drop a hint to Keira Knightley that curls suit her extraordinarily well, I'd be grateful!

Casting is always a tricky thing to get right. Charlotte Rampling was well chosen as Georgiana's mother - strict and loving by turns, with the iron edge of desiring social respectability dominating her dealings with her daughter's feelings. Hayley Atwell was good as 'the other woman', and Ralph Fiennes as the Duke was inspired.

We all know him best for his 'evil' roles, for the manipulative games he plays with many of his counterparts. From what you can glean from the trailer, if the actual story is unknown, you could be forgiven for thinking that he would be playing to type and I was thusly prepared for evil personified.
The Duke is nothing of the sort. In point of fact, I would say he was essentially a dull man who requires an heir and will do everything within his power to get it. With little screen time, and with even less script to work with, Fiennes makes the role his own, and even perhaps allows a touch of sympathy into the viewers perception of him.

Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey I did not care for. I understand the need for a complete opposite to the Duke, but in my humble opinion, Dominic Cooper is simply a bit wet. You cannot believe that one day, this man will become Prime Minister. I have been wracking my brains for another young actor that could have filled this role with a bit more grit - it's all very well to be in love, but not to look like a puppy whilst doing it - but I confess I am unable to. Are we so lacking in young British actors as all that?

Keira Knightley as the Duchess is an interesting role to watch. She still has the occasional tendency to pout, but only when not entirely sure what sort of emotion she should portray. She is by turns enchanting, devastated, in love and heartbroken, and portrays them all with great ability. One could wish that she had a fuller figure, there were times that I felt, like the reviewer of The Telegraph, a great desire to feed her chips, and she is hampered by her walk - altogether too bouncy for a woman of the eighteenth century - but these are trifles (something I never thought to write!) in comparison to the vitality and emotion of her performance. There is an innocence to her portrayal - a young woman who cannot understand why she has to suffer the slight of her husband's mistress and not be allowed to behave the same way herself. She grows up fast in the wake of her affair with Grey, and there is a scene where the sheer force of Keira's emotion caused tears to spring up, but still the innocence and knowledge of the unjust set of double standards are there to the end.

As you can probably tell, I was greatly impressed by this film. It really makes you think about the severe differences between relationships in that era and this. For once, Keira Knightly turns in a performance that manages to capture the essence of the person she is portraying, rather than who she is personally.

It deserves awards. I won't go so far as to suggest a best actress, but if the costumes don't win things, then I shall be shocked. It's a film that should be seen, no matter what your opinion of Keira Knightley - who knows, she may even surprise you!


offmytrolley said...

Thanks for this - I'm off to see it tomorrow.

oxford-reader said...

I hope you enjoy it Wendy!

GQ said...

I concur! Who would have thought that a bilious pigeon can act?! I will however wait until My Fair Lady graces our screens to pass judgement on whether Keira has truly stepped up a gear and become an actress instead of a manniquin! Wonderful review though Oxford Reader!

oxford-reader said...

Oh absolutely! One film is not enough to set right all my criticism, but it was a good performance, so perhaps I should just be content with that!