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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008

The Duchess

The Duchess of Devonshire

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   Was it Orson Welles who introduced the long, dining-room table with husband and wife at opposite ends as visual shorthand for marital discord? In The Duchess, the device is used repeatedly. At first, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) and Duchess (Keira Knightley) of Devonshire are seated across from each other, separated by a long, polished surface sparingly set with a few china serving dishes. The Duke's favorite hunting dogs are at his feet and his wife is left with no companions at all. Before long, a third party joins them at dinner, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell), once the Duchess' best friend and now the Duke's mistress. She sits midway between the unhappy couple, uncomfortably facing the camera.

  The Duchess, this year's entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for Best Costume Drama (a category the Academy should consider formalizing) is skillfully adapted by director Saul Dibb from Amanda Foreman's biography of a remarkable 18th-century woman. That Georgiana Spencer, the duchess in question, was an ancestor of Princess Diana adds tabloid interest to the true story. Is family karma at work? Are the women of the aristocratic Spencers doomed to marry uncaring men?

  Well, the Duke of Devonshire resembles Prince Charles only in part. Both men probably suffered from a low emotional quotient, but unlike the present-day heir to the British throne, the Duke is unintelligent, uninterested in the world outside his hunting grounds and given to outbursts of cruelty. He can be as dull and nasty as an unsharpened kitchen knife, yet has at least a nodding familiarity with shame. He is even willing to raise a "bastard" daughter from a servant girl under his own roof, a courtesy many of his peers might have ignored. Fiennes' performance is nuanced and masterful, a challenge given the inexpressiveness of his character. Sad eyes sometimes look out from that mask of haughty privilege.

  The star of The Duchess, however, is the woman in the title role. Keira Knightley, an "It" girl of nowadays, proves to be more than a pretty face despite her contemporary cover-girl looks. Her Georgiana is a coltish girl whose eyes dance with curiosity and delight when ushered into the splendor of London's Devonshire House, where ranks of liveried servants greet her arrival on the cobbled courtyard. She is also fiercely intelligent, able to hold her own in conversation with the leading statesmen of her time and place.

  Her misfortune was to be born 200 years too soon. The theme of The Duchess is the dependency of women on men, even in the upper classes. With few legal rights and little to rely on save their wiles and a vague sensibility of moral obligation among the men, the wives of 18th-century England were at their husbands' mercy. Georgiana was expected to produce a male heir and the daughters she presented to the Duke were not deemed a good substitute.

  The film's screenplay may hit a few anachronistic notes, and the plot has been compared to a lavishly costumed, soap-opera melodrama set amid the amber and honey tones of candlelit salons in the rich townhouses and country manors of the gentry. But so what? It's a grand-looking soap opera and melodrama is often just a snob's word for human emotion.
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