Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Duchess -- Oscar Worthy?

I’d been warned prior to seeing the Duchess that the film contained some Oscar worthy performances. Nothing could prepare me more to be critical than advance warning of inherent worthiness. With my scathingly critical glasses on, I readied myself for disappointment.

I am happy to say that disappointment is the last thing that entered my mind. The movie was not just good, but intelligent.
Clashes of culture between new-made politico idealists and aristocracy, between cultural constraints and the extension of rights and freedoms of the Enlightenment, between love and duty are handled with deftness and thoughtfulness. This film works on all levels, with fine acting, fine scripting, fine period ambiance, and, most importantly, a gripping and engaging story.

The It-Duchess of the 18th century, Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire (Kiera Knightley), is married at a young age to a man many years her senior, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Georgina is an aristocrat raised in a society bursting with the new idealism of human rights and freedoms from the Reformation, while her husband is a man of the past, interesting in hunting and little else. He only seeks an heir and so treats Georgina with icy indifference in and out of the bedroom. Georgina finds fulfillment as an influential force in all areas: politics, fashion, theatre, socializing, and gambling, until ultimately, she turns to John Gray (Dominic Cooper), her old beau. When the Duke of Devonshire takes Georgina’s closest and only friend into his household as a lover, Georgina comes to face questions about love and duty in a way she never imagined.

Knightley lends Georgina a wonderful innocence. Though she is schooled in rights and freedoms, able to poke fun at her husband through plays created by her circle of artists, she is unable to use her intelligence to better her station in her marriage. She fails to conceive the machinations of others or even to fully understand the consequences of her actions. She is an idealist and a dreamer, one unable to compromise her principles and in consequence, suffers, but does so with dignity. At the same time, the Duke’s coldness is surprisingly thawed in moments of humanity, such as when he takes in the orphaned daughter of a late chambermaid – his own daughter – and raises her in his household. He is bound, at all times, by the rules of old and to him, all ideas are simply passing fads, whereas the thing that persists is lineage.

Knightley delivers a full range of emotion in her performance and at the same time maintains the perfect sense of being well-born no matter what happens. She is perfectly cast in this role, with her youthful jubilance and majestic quality. However, top billing goes to Georgina’s mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling). Propriety and restraint rule the day, though one senses the burden she wears as she sees her flighty, free spirited daughter suffer. Lady Elisabeth could easily have been a heartless tyrant, but here she is mediated.

All in all, the film is excellent and one that is worth seeing. I fully expect to see it return to public attention when Oscar nominations are announced.

No comments: