Movie Review: 'Duchess' stylish but uninspiring

Movie all dressed up with nowhere to go

Hats entertainment: Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell display a flair for fashion in 'The Duchess.'

Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage

Hats entertainment: Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell display a flair for fashion in "The Duchess."

John Chambers was awarded a special Oscar for transforming Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall into fuzzy-muzzled simians in "Planet of the Apes." Maybe Daniel Phillips deserves similar Academy recognition for his credited "Hair Design" in "The Duchess," a tale of Whigs and especially wigs in 18th-century England, where the escarpments of pigmented protein rival the local castles and manors for architectural resplendence.

Hats entertainment: Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell display a flair for fashion in 'The Duchess.'

Nick Wall/Paramount Vantage

Hats entertainment: Keira Knightley and Hayley Atwell display a flair for fashion in "The Duchess."

"The Duchess" is the story of an extraordinary woman who rose to fame by staying true to her passions in a world of protocol, gossip ...

Rating: PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material

Length: 105 minutes

Released: September 19, 2008 NY/LA/TOR

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

Director: Saul Dibb

Writer: Jeffery Hatcher

More info and showtimes »

The most stylish of the film's epic-hairdos-with- matchstick-bodies is Keira Knightley as Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire and "Fashionable Favourite of the Faro Table," according to contemporary newspaper reports. Publicity for the movie makes much of the fact that Georgiana was the great-great-great-great aunt of Princess Diana, but in one humiliating scene, she may remind viewers of another tabloid celebrity superstar, Michael Jackson: Her wig catches fire.

The film itself is more resistant to combustion, perhaps because the tightly corseted title noblewoman is less interesting than the tightly wound people who bedevil her. Viewers are expected to note the parallels between the Duchess and the late Diana: Like her future niece, the frequently miserable Georgiana apparently was a renowned beauty, an "empress of fashion" and an independent thinker trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience to an ultra-important and ultra- rich stick in the mud (the Duke of Devonshire, played by Ralph Fiennes) who preferred another woman (Lady Elizabeth Foster, played by Hayley Atwell, last seen decorating the stately homes of England in "Brideshead Revisited").

In the film, Georgiana craves conversation and intimacy, but her inability to provide the Duke with a male heir causes her to be shunned by her already distant and self-absorbed husband. To make up for the coldness, Georgiana speaks her mind (she engages in debates about "the concept of freedom" with Whigs at the dinner table); designs outfits ("You have so many ways of expressing yourselves, whereas we must make do with our hats and our dresses," she tells a man); and falls in love with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the future prime minister (and namesake of Earl Grey tea).

Directed by Saul Dibb from a script adapted from a biography of Georgiana by Amanda Foreman, "The Duchess" likely will please those looking for a fix of English landscapes and mansions; period costumes; period primness ("Certain obligations come with marriage, no matter how burdensome they may seem," Georgiana's mother warns her daughter about the sex act); and period manners (how do those doormen maintain their furniture-like stiffness while witnessing their masters engaging in the most shameful and embarrassing of antics?). But Georgiana herself remains a stubbornly uninspiring figure. The movie's presentation of her "modern" attitudes (she's such a rebel she wants to breastfeed her own daughter, rather than relying on a wet nurse) are predictable, so we find ourselves wanting to learn more about the unknowable and unsympathetic Duke and the pragmatic Lady Elizabeth, who seems to be the wiliest of them all.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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