I love apple pie, especially with ice cream that drizzles down the side. You look at it, imagine how savory it would be, then imagine the pie still warm. Now walk across the room and see another apple pie, no ice cream, you bite in and it’s cold…even lukewarm…and somehow, even though you love apple pie, it’s underwhelming. That’s how I felt while watching The Duchess, somehow cheated by what it could have been. I felt…underwhelmed.
The wonderful Kiera Knightley has been proving herself a marvelous actor over the past few years. Ever since her performance in The Jacket and Pride and Prejudice I’ve been wowed by her with each and every role since. She has a fire in her eyes, a hope she brings to each of her characters that allows you to believe in her. As Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, that fire has been doused.
Knightely tries her uptmost to prevail, there are even moments when you see her shine, but the character has been written without a spark to ignite the flames. Trying to play a depressed woman that ultimately decides it’s better to be depressed, doesn’t help, so she doesn’t do a lot to further her own story. But it also doesn’t help that the roles in the film are incredibly underwritten and left to the actors own devices. Knightely has many devices, and she tries her damndest. At times though, because there was so much parading of emotions (yes, this is a melodrama) you begin to grow weary and watching her try to hold back her tears for the twentieth time starts to wear a bit. It doesn’t matter how well Knightely holds back the fountain. And even she looks tired of wearing the big head dresses and puffy gowns.
It also doesn’t help that the one person she’s supposed to be passionate about in the whole film is an emotional black hole. Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey, Georgiana’s lover and future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, instead of reflecting the fire in Kiera Knightley’s eyes as James McAvoy did in Atonement or as Matthew Macfadyen did as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Cooper instead sucks up the light with his two lifeless eyes. And more than likely it’s not his fault as an actor, it’s the director’s and casting director’s faults for casting him in this role. He’s not bold enough. Not strong enough. To feel for Georgiana’s loss you must first feel that she had something important with someone, and you unfortunately never do.
In fact, there’s more fire and sexual tension between Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, who plays her really terrible husband, the Duke of Devonshire. But he does not play him as an evil, malicious person, instead as someone so done in by his own loss of freedom that he’s lost the ability to communicate as a human and treat people in the same fashion. It’s a role for him and everyone must abide by their own roles — and he is the only one allowed to break those rules. This creates for some genuinely awkward moments between characters, but also some genuinely funny moments. For as uncertain as you are with regard to how the Duke will react to something (he speaks in an even almost monotone voice that’s unsettling), Fiennes makes these moments really frightening to watch, though on the other hand his sheer awkwardness sometimes makes you laugh. No doubt he’s an early version of David Brent from The Office in some moments and a violent selfish bastard the next. The crazy thing is when Fiennes says he loves Georgiana…despite all of the things he’s done…you believe him.
This at times may undermine the bittersweet tragedies that follow Georgiana around. It was certainly a bold choice for Fiennes to play the character the way he does, and he’s the best thing in the film, bringing that fire to Kinghtley, but that may hurt the film as a whole. The Duchess is a melodrama and a melodrama needs it’s villain. Originally the role of the Duke was written as a villain, straight up, very little humanity peeking through. It was Fiennes’s decision to play it the way he has. Great for him, but perhaps not for the rest of the film. It makes Georgiana out to be, while correct at times, also slightly less sympathetic in a strange way.
The mise en scene completely mirrored the story and character conflicts in largely an uninteresting way. There are a few shots that are beautiful to behold, but most of the visual work throughout feels flat and common, drab. The director on the other hand is great at building tension with the use of space, take for instance when Georgiana slowly walks through an open space to hand off something that is hers – notice how the large pool of water lingers quietly in the background…as if she may throw herself in at any moment, or when the Duke quickly marches after Georgiana through the labyrinthine halls of his fortress to her bedroom for an unpleasant talking to.
There are betrayals that effect the viewer, their are twists that are unexpected and there’s passion that’s stifled (by characters in the movie to each other and the writing of the movie for the actors), but more times than not The Duchess just can’t seem to light that fire under its own seat and become something far more than what it is.