...plays like a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of an eighteen-century soap opera.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The film industry doesn't make too many big, serious, period costume dramas. They're expensive, obviously, and most of them don't do well at the box office. "Amadeus" was an exception, but who could resist the music of Mozart? So, in 2008 Paramount came out with "The Duchess," the real-life tale of an eighteenth-century woman, Georgiana Spencer, who as the Duchess of Devonshire became one of the most influential women of her generation. If moviegoers around the world were like the ones in my neighborhood, they stayed away in droves.

The movie's publicity department made quite an issue of comparing the Duchess of Devonshire to Princess Diana in terms of the Duchess's adoring public and her influence on dress styles, hairdos, even politics. I dunno. It makes me wonder why people idolize and follow celebrities as much as they do, but apparently it's an age-old tradition. Human nature never changes.

The movie begins in 1774 with the marriage of Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), a young woman from a wealthy family, to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), one of the most powerful men in England. Georgiana goes from living in a splendid country manor house to a London palace. Poor child. At the age of seventeen, Georgiana willingly married a man close to ten years her elder (something of a stretch for Fiennes, in reality about twenty-three years older than Knightley), who admits that his only interest in her is the production of a male heir.

According to what we see in the movie, the marriage was one of convenience for both parties. The Duchess and her social-climbing mother (Charlotte Rampling) wanted only a marriage to an important and influential man. The Duke, for his part, is an empty suit, with no feeling for anyone but himself and his legacy. How can the filmmakers hope that we will care about either of them?

In the first six years of their union, Georgiana gives birth only to girls, which outrages the Duke, who feels the woman has cheated him. Meanwhile, he expects his wife to ignore his own sexual peculiarities and extramarital escapades.

Everyone we meet in the film is a hollow shell. When the Duke cannot get the son he so desires, he takes on a mistress (Hayley Atwell) and brings her into the palace to live with him and his wife. In retaliation, Georgiana takes up with a young man (Dominic Cooper) who will eventually become the country's Prime Minister. As a background to this loveless, lifeless marriage, we see a vague swirl of politics and social encounters, parties, gambling, and further affairs. Yet the movie resolutely concentrates on the estrangement of the husband and wife, a drab and depressing relationship that never draws fire.

"The Duchess" plays like a "Masterpiece Theater" adaptation of an eighteen-century soap opera. Mostly, the movie tells us things rather than showing them to us. It tells us, for instance, that the British people loved Georgiana, yet we never see it or understand why. The movie tells us that Georgiana was an arbiter of culture and clothing, hats and wigs, the country's style leader, the "Empress of Fashion," yet we never see it except in a couple of scenes where in passing she's wearing elaborate gowns and headpieces. The movie never goes beneath the surface, never illuminates the characters, never makes us feel good or bad about them. Just as the characters themselves seem indifferent to one another, so do we as an audience feel indifferent toward them.

The story does make a few stabs at thematic material like feminism, women's rights, and the limitations of a male-dominated society, but it's halfhearted and lasts maybe two minutes total. The film also attempts to wow us with glorious location shots, stately manor houses, real-life palaces, beautiful countrysides, idyllic, pastoral settings, and busy cityscapes. Yet for all its attempts at verisimilitude, it never persuades us to believe that it's anything but a group of impersonal actors putting on a show.

At its heart, "The Duchess" is little more than another cinematic exhibition of the aristocracy behaving badly. While it's an attractive film to look at, there is no substance beneath the veneer. The characters have affairs. That's what they're best at. Then the last half hour takes on such a leisurely pace, it looks as though director Saul Dibbs shot it in slow motion. I'm sure there must be a compelling reason for a viewer to spend almost two hours with Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, but this film does not provide one.

I didn't get to see "The Duchess" in a theater (it didn't hang around long enough), but I did see a big-screen trailer for it several times, and this standard-def, anamorphic widescreen transfer appears to duplicate that experience fairly well. The thing is, although the director clearly wanted to create a sumptuous visual feast, he chose to use a largely pastel palette and to shoot largely on location, resulting in a soft, ultrasmooth, often hazy image. The 2.35:1 ratio screen size does sometimes contain some ravishing shots, but most of the time the picture seems to have a veil pulled over the proceedings, a golden glow often drenching a scene, with facial detailing polished over.

Like the video quality, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is almost nondescript. It produces a good, clear, if somewhat sharp-edged midrange and a reasonably wide front-channel stereo spread, but it has very little dynamic range, no serious bass to speak of, and a limited sense of surround. Very occasionally, we will hear a bird or a touch of musical ambience in the rear speakers. That's about it.

The disc contains several bonus items. The first and longest is "How Far She Went...Making The Duchess," a twenty-two-minute behind-the-scenes featurette divided into six parts and going into the history of the main character and the history of the movie itself. After that are two other, shorter featurettes: "Georgiana in Her Own Words," seven minutes, based on the letters of Georgiana Spencer, and "Costume Diary," five minutes on the costume design.

The extras conclude with sixteen scene selections; previews at start-up and in the main menu; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and a handsomely embossed slipcover.

Parting Shots:
"The Duchess" is a remarkably humdrum picture. Exposing the lives of superficial, pointless persons such as the ones in this movie must serve a purpose, perhaps as some kind of moral lesson about inappropriate human behavior; I dunno. Yet the movie seems almost as superficial as the characters in it, barely scratching the surface of these people, let alone retelling their real-life history in any compelling manner. The film is appealing to look at with its dreamy, misty tone, but this cannot compensate for its failing to move a viewer in any particular way or its having little to say in the process.


Film Value