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12.31.08

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Phaedra

The Duchess

One disc; Paramount; $29.98

Reviewed by Richard von Busack


To see Ralph Fiennes as the fifth duke of Devonshire, displaying his slightly spindly shins in knee breeches and white stockings, is to realize at once why there are so few movies made about the late 1700s. To see Keira Knightley decked in sky-high wigs, tricornered hats and capacious plumes is to realize why people still try to make them. Saul Dibb's The Duchess is "based on a true story" (as the titles remind us). But everything of historical interest has been removed except for the wardrobe. Georgina (Knightley) is bred for the role of blue-blooded baby maker. Georgina is married to one of the wealthiest and most distant peers in the nation. Given bupkus by this script, Fiennes concocts an enigma of coldness on his own. His icy duke, more interested in his hounds than anything else, has been pressed by his duty to the point where he has no personality. The historical vacuum of The Duchess proves especially troublesome here. This lavish-looking romance insists that politics would just confuse our pretty little heads. We see the heroine chortling in bed over the penny broadsides that caricature her; we note a line in passing about the scandal of Georgina wearing a mob cap in public. What we don't get is an explanation that endorsing the French Revolution was quite a gesture from someone who owned a half-dozen estates. Director Dibb steals that deathless symbol of marital alienation, the mile-wide dinner table in Citizen Kane, but he also seems to have inadvertently stolen the enigma of Kane: Why is a person this rich so miserable? It may be the clothes; Fiennes' duke is bound up in a too-tight waistcoat in almost every scene. Everyone has a corset in this movie, even the director. The extras include a background documentary with interviews with the principals; a featurette on the film's biggest virtue, its costumes; and a visit with a historian who fills in some details about Georgina's life taken from her letters (if nothing else, she had exceptionally fine handwriting.


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