Sunday, October 19, 2008

You! I Suppose You're Programmed for Etiquette and Protocol!

I always have a bit of a struggle with movies that depict a period earlier than, say, the '50s or so (even though my favorite period is the '20s-'40s, and many of my favorite movies are set in this time frame). Each period has its suite of styles and characteristics which can provide a convincing illusion, yet it remains to be seen how well a film maker places us un-self-consciously in the period. If we don't buy the illusion, everything else falls flat.

With the era of powdered wigs & corsets, I don't know enough to be put off by lapses in authenticity. But neither can I simply accept that we're properly in the period just because a few details have been attended to. Saul Dibbs' film The Duchess tells the story of Georgiana Cavendish (1757-1806), a woman of good birth who marries the immensely wealthy Duke of Devonshire. The Duke has it in mind that he need only command it for his wife to produce an heir--a male heir, of course--to provide for orderly succession of his wealth and power. In a stunning turn, she seems to have rather expected love and affection.

While the film has the advantage of telling a story which purports to be more or less factual, it's a story which has been told a buzillion times before. If there are only 12 stories, this one is about #3 or so: Lovestruck girl marries cold but wealthy man; girl becomes disillusioned; man becomes disillusioned, takes lover, falls in love; woman gets pissed, takes lover, finds deep and true love; man objects since there are different rules for men than for women; woman has screws put to her to make her "see the light"; woman spends rest of life semi-miserable but trés wise. Duke's lover happens to be woman's best friend. Her mother meddles a bit. Pah, details.

The screenplay, by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and director Dibb, is based on the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman. And I can see how, going through the letters and papers during one's book research, one might think "this has the makings of a great movie!" But the film just never quite hit its marks for me. The climaxes, the big arguments and blowups and passionate surrenders to love, all seem a touch mechanical, and there's just a bit too much space in the movie. When the action needs to heat up and accelerate toward something, there's a plodding sense of having to first get past all the protocol and through all the fussy layers of clothing. If this is simply the reality of the time, then it's a wonder that anyone interacted at all, to say nothing of reproduction.

The two leads, Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, are excellent--the issues are not with them--and the movie is mostly lovely to look at, though many of the settings seem old and tired, heirlooms on loan from the Royal Parks Agency. Knightley has so often impressed me as a wisp of a woman with an iron constitution. She's a tower of strength and indignation in Pride and Prejudice, and I loved her in Atonement. (Oh, and I guess there were those pirate movies.) Her Duchess here is a fun-loving and charismatic woman who loves her children and interacts easily with people, and she is given quite a range of feelings to portray. She's easily up to the task, and indeed it all feels quite overt--she seems almost to have been directed for the stage. Fiennes has perhaps the bigger task, playing a fairly dim and stoical man concealed behind a layer of gilt. He gives us just a hint of things running deep beneath the surface, things that the Duke himself is scarcely aware of.

It's a setup--firebrand woman and emotionally-crippled man--that foreordains every subsequent development. But that needn't have squashed the whole enterprise if those developments had come in an intriguing way.

Alas, this film feels like a Merchant / Ivory production without Merchant or Ivory. Without the spark, it's just a wee bit dull and slow and predictable.

Grade: C


Kate said...

Whenever I watch a period movie, I get enamored of the dresses and the hairdos and the sheer grandiosity of living back then. And then I remind myself that they rarely bathed and that indoor plumbing had not happened yet...

wunelle said...

So true! I suppose the animal smells weren't so off-putting when everyone smelled like livestock!

I've often wondered at our use of perfumed soaps, and of our fetish with deodorant and shampoo, etc. When I get in a cab driven by the (stereotypical) person of Middle-Eastern origin, I find my nostrils flare with revulsion at the pungent body odor. And yet, I always find myself thinking that we OUGHT to have been designed by evolution both to smell attractive, and to be attracted to how we smell.

So, is it all just custom? Could one bathe and be clean but not sanitized of all smell? I'm curious.

Kate said...

It's custom. Believe me. I work with a man from Pakistan.