[This is a review disguised as a mathematical dissection. It may also contain some spoilers.]
I was lying in bed last night wondering: if Keira Knightley's new film The Duchess were a pie, what would it's main ingredients be? So I decided to figure it out.
40%... Keira Knightley. Despite what the (hilarious) title of this entry may suggest, Miss Knightley is actually very good in this film. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's her best performance yet. It has more weight than her (still lovely) turn in Pride and Prejudice, and there's none of that stilted British accent shit from Atonement. This is- since she is the titular character- "her" film, so to speak, especially since director Saul Dibb seems remarkably insistent on sticking the camera square-on to her face. She handles it very well. She makes a believable transition from naive new bride to increasingly disillusioned woman, as the Duchess (of Devonshire) hides her private turmoils behind her fashions and her sprightly public persona. She's charming, but not aggressively so, putting as much emphasis on her character's foibles as her strengths and letting the situations we see her in speak for themselves.
15%... Children. Alright. So the children themselves aren't physically in this film a great deal. But in the end the film shows itself to be all about them. The Duchess' mother has clearly put all her efforts into getting her daughter into the best position possible, but the Duchess' own generation is also all about sacrificing themselves for their children. The movie even overplays this a bit, as Lady "Bess" Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell) spells this out for both us and the Duchess as she tries to explain her dalliance with the Duchess' husband. And the Duchess, ultimately, does the same (again, the script overplays this, and sacrifices another aspect of the film for it, sadly, but we'll get to that). What the film, thankfully, doesn't spell out is how this is, obviously, destined to be a never-ending chain- children sacrifice themselves for their children, who sacrifice themselves for their children, creating a never-ending legacy of unhappiness. It makes me never want to have children, because I'd probably be a horrible parent.
12%... The ambiguous morality of Ralph Fiennes. I hope y'all pronounced his name correctly. One of the cleverest aspects of the script is how it lets Fiennes' character unfold in the same way for us as he does for the Duchess- character identification, you see? He's initially a cold, unreachable figure, who becomes a dangerous, volatile, selfish one, and it's only in the latter part that he gets the chance to speak his part, and you feel he only does so because, at least as far as he's concerned, the Duchess has finally become adult enough to understand what he's trying to tell her. What he does is inexcusable, but the film leaves you unsettled about how hateable the man can really be.
10%... Extra-marital sex. What would an eighteenth-century historical biopic be without some juicy affairs? Nothing, that's what. And here, you almost get three for the price of one! The openly accepted one (naturally, since he's a rich man) between the Duke and Bess is all played out between them and the Duchess at the dinner table, their sexual dalliances left to the Duchess' POV as she stumbles on servants listening to their first encounter. But this menage-a-trois isn't just between the two- I was surprised when their was a brief female moment, which I didn't think would happen even as it did- simply because I'd heard nothing about it! Which is a good thing, really, because it shouldn't be anything to get excited about (and it is quite brief).
But what's best here is the affair between the Duchess and eventual Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, hooray). This may be me at my most basic level, but the lengthy lead-up to them even kissing really did it for me. It probably helps that they're both so attractive. And unlike the other affairs, there is considerable action that goes on here. Can I say yum?
Okay. I'm done being shallow now.
8%... Politics. A film consisting of even this much politics may scare some people off, but it just wasn't enough. I knew that the Duchess of Devonshire was a big political campaigner, and we just didn't get enough of it. I suppose I could credit the film with treating its audience with intelligence by not explaining the political positions of the Whig Party, but I fear it's more a case of that being construed as "boring". I wanted to understand what the Duchess was standing for, what she was (briefly) standing up in support of, but the film only seems to go there to further the relationship between her and Grey. And this is what I referred to earlier- in the Duchess' decision between Grey and the Duke, it's only and always her children, never the threat of what it would do to Grey's political career- which could, I assume, have been greatly important in furthering the country's development.
7%... Feet. I think Saul Dibb is a foot fetishist. He certainly goes for the classic 'stepping out of a carriage' shot. I think the only part of the body we saw as much of as people's feet was the back of Keira's head (identification, you see?). Indeed, Dibb does show his limits as a director here- the other classic period shot you may find yourself rolling your eyes at is the wide angle of the dinner table, as the Duke and Duchess sit about a mile away from each other. Wonder what that signifies?
5%... Big hats. The Duchess- as she herself spells out early on- expresses herself through her fashion. And she certainly does have some extraordinary headgear in this film. Sadly, I can't find a picture of my favourite one (it's the one with the enormous feather), so you'll have to settle for this one instead.
2%... Charlotte Rampling. I did really like The Duchess, but doesn't every movie's awesomeness factor go up by about 40% every time Charlotte Rampling turns up? Here, she's scarce but very brilliant as the Duchess' concerned but critical mother.
1%... Burning hair. Yes. The most hilarious moment of the film comes in a tritely-filmed sequence where a drunk Duchess stumbles backwards into a candelabra and ends up having her wig put out by a servant pouring wine on it. Sadly- or perhaps even more brilliantly- it has actually been removed from her head at this point. Revealing how little hair she really has. (Still, it's better than the greasy hair that Ralph keeps under his wig.)
And that, good people, is what ingredients go into making a competent, enjoyable if flawed historical biopic. I give it a B, and I wouldn't mind eating it again.