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The Duchess

When the lights come up, and the credits roll, one wonders why The Duchess was made. Because the real-life duchess was a sensationally interesting woman in her day, one might ask why the movies hadn't told her story before. But that's not my question. What, I want to know, did writers Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen and director Saul Dibb want to show us? Did they want to tell us something new about a few important and unusual Eighteenth-Century people, or did they want to re-make the story of Cinderella, in a darkish and grown-up key, to be sure, but with plenty of stimulation for fantasies of wealth and beauty? Is The Duchess a cautionary tale, or an exercise in wish fulfillment?

One wouldn't be asking the question if the filmmakers had made up their minds to answer it in one way or the other. Perhaps it did not occur to them that it would probably be impossible to try to be both things— history play and bodice ripper — at the same time.  To tell the truth and to have a good time telling it? That would have called, I think, for the collaboration of John Waters and the late Glen Milstead (Divine). What Mr Dibb and his team have given us instead is an utterly unremarkable melodrama, with some fine bits of acting, lots of luscious sets and costumes, and one genuinely heartrending scene. In short, the movie stands as an extraordinarily vibrant proxy for the modern romance of another Spencer, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Diana's romance, that is, with "her public."

Diana Spencer was a well-born girl of unexceptional endowment who was transformed into a goddess — or a science fiction monster — by the stellar voltage of the longings of others. A seemingly innocent creature who was trapped in an unhappy situation that only her husband seemed incapable of figuring out, she was adored for her elegant sorrows, and for the winsome smiles of resignation that grew more knowing as the years went by. Georgiana Spencer, too, appears to have intrigued her contemporaries with her manner of bearing the dissatisfactions of her exalted position. The Duchess grants us the glimpses of Georgiana's life that we were never going to have of Diana's, but these scenes almost wreck the film, because they ask us to see Georgiana as a proto-feminist in a patriarchal world when we know perfectly well that she was simply a spoiled brat. Keira Knightley's patrician charm cannot conceal Georgiana's narcissism, which is displayed every time the duchess enters an assembly. This Georgiana is incapable of behaving in public as if her mind were not occupied by reflections upon private pleasures that her attendants will never, ever understand.

Ms Knightley makes the very most of what she is given to work with, and she also has the benefit of a determined supporting cast. Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper would all be worthy of Academy Awards if only the film deserved one as well, but it does not, so their work has a thrown-away feeling. It is great fun to watch Ms Rampling, who has enjoyed one of the more transgressive careers in film, stand up as a pillar of respectability; while, on the other hand, the ordinarily somewhat lupine Mr Cooper is all earnest sweetness. Ralph Fiennes would be electrifying as a great man who has no need to bother making himself agreeable to other people, but only if the spectacle were less chilled. Ms Atwell's role, the most ambiguous in the film, demonstrates fearful powers of self-control.

Let us hope that this the end of Keira Knightley's flirtations with real-world glamour. It is an awful measure of her performance's success that she has been roundly accused of being incapable of acting at all. Movie critics didn't like Diana, either, and they thought that the public were mugs to idolize her. I'm afraid that Ms Knightley has been too successful by three-quarters. (October 2008)

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