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Dull Duchess

The Duchess: 109 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Saul Dibb. Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell

The Duchess movie posterDirector and co-writer Saul Dibb takes as his inspiration Georgiana, the real-life 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, and envisages her as a kind of super-celebrity of her day. Her extravagant lifestyle and gregarious public persona seem tailor-made to receive the adulation of a British society ostensibly in awe of its aristocracy.

Georgiana (known to her intimates as G) is an independent woman (in spirit at least) living in a man's world. Coupled with her 'famous for being famous' status, this makes her story ripe for thematic updating. A more substantial script, or a more substantial lead actress, might have evoked the subordinate role of women in contemporary Western politics, or slyly spoofed the ever-present cult of celebrity.

Instead we get a repeat of a familiar refrain from modern period dramas — of a woman having her spirit stifled by the patriarchal oppression of her society — and a lead actor (Knightley) who fails to make more than a surface impression as the put-upon Duchess.

Knightley's offbeat beauty and natural poise mean she looks right at home in elegant period costume and oversized wigs. But her performance lacks substance and charisma. Georgiana is a natural wit who takes a keen interest in politics. But Knightley is a movie star for whom it seems the film is a mere vehicle.

She does elicit sympathy for G's subjugation. G marries the Duke (Fiennes) as a teenager, infatuated with the prospect of fairytale romance. But to the Duke, the marriage is a means to an end. On their wedding night, he disrobes her coolly, methodically, as if he is unpacking a new appliance.

He yearns for a male heir, and it's towards this purpose alone that he took her as his bride.

Over the ensuing years, as G bears several daughters but no son, the Duke becomes increasingly cold and oppressive towards her. He stifles her few prospects of true happiness, including a friendship with outgoing divorcee Bess Foster (Atwell) and her affair with charismatic young politician (and future prime minister) Charles Grey (Cooper), the latter, despite the Duke's own conspicuous womanising.

It's pedestrian, Hallmark Channel fodder more than anything else.

Fiennes steals the show from Knightley. With his waistcoat buttoned tight across his dukely paunch, he is by turns comically aloof, agonisingly withdrawn and outright explosive. The Duke is a particularly odious and pitiable villain, and Fiennes' relative stillness, compared with Knightley's extroversion, suggests that while still waters run deep, the reverse is also true.

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Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue. He is a contributor to the Black Box e-anthology. Email Tim


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Duchess, Saul Dibb, Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell



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