Friday, September 26, 2008

A well-dressed "Duchess"

Keira Knightley plays the duchess. Ralph Fiennes portrays the duke. Haley Atwell appears as the woman who wins the duke's heart -- in so much as he has one. That's "The Duchess" in a nutshell, but it's a very lavish-looking nutshell. Cinematographer Gyula Pados captures all the refined 18th century beauty you might want, and director Saul Dibb keeps the proceedings moving. The result: a movie that reminded me of a good (not great) exam written by a student whose intelligence was bolstered by fine penmanship. Knightley may not break new ground as an actress, but she continues to impress, and Fiennes does a terrific job of displaying the duke's unquestioned sense of privilege, a feeling of entitlement that stems from his vast power and years of being an idle aristocrat. Based on the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the story has been compared to that of Princess Di, who participated in a loveless royal marriage and who was driven to seek love elsewhere. The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen offers just enough shading to keep from turning into another rote exercise in period moviemaking. At heart, "The Duchess" may be a glorified costume drama, but, hey, the costumes are something to see. Like the duke, the movie seems to understand the importance of keeping up appearances.

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