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The Duchess /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling

Directed by: Saul Dibb

Produced by: Michael Kuhn, Gabrielle Tana
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb
Distributor: Paramount Vantage

     There isn’t one concrete piece of The Duchess that can be faulted; in fact, if one was to evaluate the picture under the most textbook definition of a “good film,” then one would have no choice but to consider it a masterpiece.. After seeing it twice—once in the early stages of post at a preview screening and once when completed—I can’t stop raving about certain elements of the production. The Duchess is, indeed, masterful in many respects.

     The two leads—Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes—are impeccable in their depictions of a cold duke and vulnerable duchess of Devonshire in the 18th Century. Knightley deserves Oscar consideration given how powerful a woman she is able to foster from a rather emptily-written role. By the end of the picture, the viewer feels the kind of unity with the protagonist that distinguishes a great performance. Fiennes is surprisingly effective in his part, too, which is something of a feat because of the trickily high degree of dark humor he must manage to deliver while simultaneously portraying an often evil man.

     Two technical elements also merit noting. The more predictable of the pair is Michael O. Connor’s costume design, which is even more lavish and eye-popping than one is accustomed to expecting from this type of picture. The bigger surprise (and a totally welcome one, at that) is Masahiro Hirakubo’s precise and transfixing editing-job. When I saw the final cut of The Duchess, I was swept away by how gracefully and perfectly the movie moved, supporting every bit of the actors’ work with elegant pacing and perfectly cut and constructed scenes.

     The Duchess’ unafraid view of sexuality is rare for a film of its kind, too. Unlike the muted, earlier-set Other Boleyn Girl that was released earlier this year, this picture does not stray from exploring the devilishly erotic side of what is usually considered a prim culture. The first sex scene between Knightley and Fiennes is dynamic (although I do remember it being longer in Dibb’s first cut) and a passionate sequence shared between Knightley and Hayley Atwell (who plays the Duke’s extramarital mistress) is scintillating.

     And yet the movie left me feeling peculiarly empty. Despite its broad range of accomplishments, The Duchess has a tendency to be monotonous, as if it’s going through manufactured motions. Yes, it boasts fine theatrical and technical elements, but doesn’t one expect these from a period-piece with a cast of this stature? Sure, its protagonist is one of the most sympathetic of the year—certainly the most sympathetic from this historical time-period to grace the silver-screen in a long time—but isn’t said sympathy exploited by a hollow and ordinary plot? And as much as I find some of the movie’s themes daring, they go largely unsubstantiated by the narrative whole. The Duchess may indeed seem a masterpiece on the surface, but it’s actually far from one considering its lack of an ultimate punch. The film is brilliant in strides but is also collectively benign.

     That last paragraph isn’t meant to suggest that you not see The Duchess. For all the reasons I’ve discussed, I’m recommending the picture. But it can’t help but feel like missed opportunity in the end given how striking some of its assets are. Shame.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 9.20.2008

Screened on: 9.19.2008 at Pacific's The Grove 14 in Los Angeles, CA (final cut); 4.16.2008 at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks in Sherman Oaks, CA (early cut).


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