The Duchess – Same recipe, bland end product

The advertising campaign was stuffed with Princess Diana parallels, even including her image in the trailers, with the tagline ‘There were three people in her marriage’, used to apply to the titular Duchess of Devonshire and her descendant Diana.

I find this objectionable on many grounds (surely everyone is more interesting as a one-off than as a replica of another), but quite aside from personal exasperation; it is not a very effective method of making a film look exciting and original.

The Diana story was exhausted several thousand-column inches ago. It is as if the marketing crew decided that we are all far too insular and stupid to be interested in an eighteenth century aristocrat for her own merits so decided to present it as a well-worn tabloid gossip story. Patronising. In the end, the director Saul Gibb refrained from using too many references to Diana in the film itself, but it still deserved a rant.

Tirade over, IÂ’ll admit the film is quite adequate as well formed escapism. Ralph FiennesÂ’ monotone Duke of Devonshire was properly repulsive as the servant-shagging husband of Georgiana, Dominic Cooper paraded about with panache as the lover, and Keira KnightleyÂ…well, compared to her early attempts at acting IÂ’d say give the girl an Oscar for this, but that isnÂ’t saying much in general terms.

We get to see Knightley in the most outrageous wigs and hats England had to offer – and to give her due credit, how many actresses could still be appealing under a three-foot beehive of grey cotton wool? The only time she struck a discordant note was in her scenes as a mother, particularly where she has to give up her baby. Knightley simply isn’t substantial enough in body to make a credible mother, no matter how hard she tries, and she does try, bless her.

However, the other actors support her well, particularly Charlotte Rampling as her mother Lady Spencer, and Simon McBurney as her friend Charles Fox. Bess, component number three in the conjugal unit, was suitably complex as the friend/traitor but what was with the bizarre lesbian scene that turned up in the middle? Not long enough to be of titillation value, but not subtle enough to be a believable subtext – why on earth was it there…

As a film it works pretty well, the directing is sensitive and not overly melodramatic as some period-dramas tend to be, the actors do their job and the sets are superb.

Everything was in working order but I had a strange sensation that I had seen this film before. It was as if the studio had chosen the best bits from all the recent successful costume dramas: the sets (and Knightley) from Pride and Prejudice, the fabulous costumes of Marie Antoinette and the customary British thespian to play the parent of hot young lead actor, as can be seen in just about every period piece ever made. Together these elements did make a ‘good’ film, but for me it never was more than competently mediocre.

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