Period pieces have lost their popularity in recent years, but filmmakers just keep on making them. The more modern filmmaker has been able to buck audiences' stereotypes by taking such films to a deeper, more vibrant place, both in terms of intensity and visuals. Joe Wright, who did Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, is the perfect example of a director who has figured out how to make period pieces alive again. Unfortunately, the director of The Duchess, Saul Dibb, does not have this same gift.
The Duchess, about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, a beauty who was popular among the people and an "It Girl" of her day - but not so popular amongst her husband, who saw her as nothing more as a piece of meat to provide a male heir that would never come - is not a period piece of old. It has more intensity and a more behind-the-curtains feel to it than what you'd expect, but it still lacks the energy, dialogue and direction to take it to that next level. Even after the movie is done, I'm still not sure why Georgiana was the woman she was or why we should care. That is the piece, the heart of it all, that is missing.
Keira Knightley stars as the title character, and once again delivers a pretty strong performance. She seems to have found a passion for period pieces, having starred in several over the last few years - including the two Joe Wright films mentioned above. She must really like corsets. She delivers her role with authenticity and passion, but still, Dibb and co-writers Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen never let her unleash and prove to us why her character is worthy of her own movie.
Ralph Fiennes, as her horrible husband who takes in a mistress - Georgiana's best friend, no less - after losing hope with his wife, is okay, but his role is pretty thankless and one-dimensional. Was this man really that bad? What really made him tick? These questions, these little things that add complexity to characters and to the movie itself, are what sets great films apart.
All that being said, The Duchess is a decent film with quality acting and okay writing, but it lacks the intensity and fire to truly capture our attention. A few weeks from now, I'll have completely forgotten about this movie and won't be the worse for it. Fans of movies set in the Victorian era may find enough to like, but in the scheme of things, The Duchess is nothing remarkable.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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