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    The Duchess

    To "Di" For

    Who couldn't love a movie "based on a true story" about an 18th-century relative of Princess Di, whose life was an almost perfect blueprint for her 20th-century descendant?


    Here's a dirty little personal secret — I love costume pix! I mean what's not to love? Gorgeous actors, clothes, sets and of course, a decent script. When well done, they're high on my list of guilty pleasures.

    Directed by: Saul Dibb.
    Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb.
    Adapted from "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" by: Amanda Foreman.
    Cast: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle.
    Cinematography: Gyula Pados.
    Edited by: Masahiro Hirakubo.
    Music by: Rachel Portman.
    Production design by: Michael Carlin.
    Art direction by: Karen Wakefield.
    Costumes by: Michael O'Connor.

    Related links: Official site
    So although I hated Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (good idea gone terribly wrong) and Gillian Anderson's "House of Mirth" (talk about a misnomer!) and wished Peter ("The Queen") Morgan's "The Other Boleyn Girl" had been a better script, I still adore period films.

    That includes musicals adapted from the stage ("My Fair Lady," "Gigi"), Heath Ledger's po-mo "Casanova," Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren or Dame Judi Dench as variations on "Elizabeth I," almost anything Merchant Ivory (except "The White Countess") and each and every one of Scorsese's fabulous and vastly different costume quintet ("Gangs of New York," "The Age of Innocence," "The Aviator," "New York, New York" and "Casino").

    All this is by way of saying I thoroughly enjoyed Saul Dibb's well-paced and almost perfectly cast screen adaptation of Amanda Foreman's "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" aka "The Duchess," script courtesy of Jeffrey Hatcher (who also adapted his own "Stage Beauty" to the screen as well as the afore mentioned version of "Casanova").

    Who couldn't love a movie "based on a true story" about an 18th-century relative of Princess Di, whose life was an almost perfect blueprint for her 20th century descendant? While the film neither dwells on nor ignores the ironic similarities, it leaves it to 21st-century audiences to draw such comparisons as we may.

    The Duchess  
    Georgiana Spencer (Diana was a Spencer, remember?) became duchess of Devonshire, by way of a marriage that was less a love match than the means to provide an heir for the duke. In collusion with her harridan of a mother, Georgiana was disastrously married to the older, seemingly cold nobleman. Small wonder that each chose to find love or at least passion with others.

    The marriage itself was the basis for such Restoration comedies as Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "School for Scandal" — the playwright is also a witty character and close confidant of Georgiana in the film as in life. The real duchess — much more doughy in portraits by Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds than the rail-thin Knightley — was also the victim of much personal satire for her outspoken political support of the Whig Party and her distant cousin (and sometime paramour, later to be British prime minister) Charles Grey (played by the rather lightweight Dominic Cooper).

    Interesting side notes: Georgiana was also raising the duke's out-of-wedlock daughter as her own but when her affair with Grey produced a bastard daughter it almost cost Georgiana her other children in a potentially nasty divorce, while it merely enhanced Grey's reputation politically if not personally. Ah, such were the good old unenlightened days.

    But even for that time period (just pre- both the American and French Revolutions), the duke's final solution to which Georgiana was forced to accede, was truly strange. It consisted of a ménage with her only female friend, Lady Elizabeth/Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), now the duke's mistress, living at Devonshire House and together as a threesome with the duke and duchess, publicly partaking of all that elevated lifestyle had to offer.

    The duchess also had a penchant for gambling (in real life she left a massive debt upon her early death at age 48) and a weakness for alcohol — can you blame her? Still, the bargain struck, the image of the duke, the duchess and Lady Bess certainly does summon publicity photos of Princess Di, Prince Charles and the horse-faced Camilla, whether intended or not. And the final irony is that upon Georgiana's death, the duke also married his paramour Bess.

    Knightley's high-cheekboned facial hollows and Ralph Fiennes's almost expressionless physiognomy provide a perfect canvas for Dibb to paint the pain and sorrow each caused the other. Fiennes's gift is such that a mere raised eyebrow or pursed lip calls forth the utter confusion of a man also trapped by the mores of his time and not merely some cruel ogre. Mum is played by an almost mummified Charlotte Rampling as a "bite the blanket and take it like a lady" type; who scoffs at the word love and steers her daughter wrong at every turn.

    If certain pertinent facts are absent or merely glossed over by cinematic necessity, weird towering period hair-do's and makeup details are extremely faithful to portraiture of the period. Knightley looks totally of another time with no hint of 2008, which is key to whatever authenticity one can hope for onscreen. Just check out early period pix on TCM starring the likes of Bette Davis ("Jezebel)" or Joan Crawford ("The Gorgeous Hussy") and catch those 1930s plucked eyebrows on 19th-century heroines.

    And as if "The Duchess" were not treat enough, upcoming for any fellow guilty-pleasure seekers are Emily Blunt's already-completed "Queen Victoria," and a projected "Mary, Queen of Scots" from that other Boleyn girl, Scarlett Johansson.

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2008

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