I don’t like to read movie reviews. Actually, I love to read them, but only after I’ve seen the movie. The same is probably true, more or less, as far as books go, and it relates to how I read blog posts. I’ll read enough to see if something sounds interesting, but don’t like to go too far if I’m actually going to read or see something. And I love reading about books I know and have read.
Long way of saying that I haven’t read any reviews of The Duchess, the Keira Knightly-Ralph Fiennes movie that is based on Amanda Foreman’s 1998 book about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. I read the book when it came out, curious at the time about its movie prospects–again, that’s sort of my job, but in a wildly confusing and frustrating way that I won’t go into. I wouldn’t have been able to get the book made as a movie, I don’t think.
I remember that I really liked the book as history, biography, and as a new look into the 18th century. Georgiana was a celebrity and fashion plate and a compelling character. The book was a very interesting document in women’s studies. My own approach to 18th century British culture was through Boswell’s Johnson, the rise of the novel, the development of poetry towards Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats, and the various political characters and events, and so many other paths I guess, and Foreman’s book seemed to provide a very fresh perspective. Georgiana was a very specific, central character, one who combined timing, youth, beauty, wealth, and taste in the midst of a familiar historical culture. She was important, in many of the ways that are familiar to us now, and Foreman did a great job of shaping and telling that story.
I’ve said before that it’s ridiculously hard to get movies made; making movies, on the other hand, can be difficult, but it’s manageable. The producers, writer, and director of this film took this quality book and subject and developed it patiently and stubbornly, and they eventually got some good breaks. The most important of these is the sheer fact of Keira Knightly, who is perfectly suited to play the role. Getting the right actor at the right time, I have found, is largely a matter of luck, combined with thorny issues of access and persistence. This film would never have been made without KK, or it would have been a small and inexpensive TV version. The filmmaking team did a good job of positioning themselves to be ready to get a determinative player like KK, and then they were able to jump on the chance and put it together. Once you have a script and an actor like KK, it’s relatively easy to make the movie, and perhaps someone with good UK film business relationships knew the book early on and said “this is a perfect KK project” from the very beginning, as soon as she came on the scene, and things followed from there. The story of the project’s development must be out there, and I’m sure it has its interesting twists and turns.
The little crowd with which I watched the film (in a full theater) all liked it. They thought it was perhaps a little slow, but the strong performance of Ralph Fiennes had enough nuance to make things work, the costumes were spectacular, and the rather stark emotional story was well told and seemed satisfying. We also had a little chat about the Princess Di parallels, which were evident enough, although I wasn’t mindful of them while watching the film. Someone must have read about that in a review.
I was quite disappointed myself. Call it book reader’s disappointment. And it was a vague and unfocused, but pretty strong case of the infection. I didn’t remember very much about the book, hardly any details at all, but I do remember that Georgiana was dynamic and extraordinary, easily holding interest through a sizable historical volume. The movie skipped over the hard-to-dramatize and perhaps tangential elements, and settled into its simple and rather routine storyline of an unfortunate, loveless marriage of wealth. In the film, Georgianna was defined by her marriage to the Duke and the stately, heartless progress of that lengthy minuet. In the book, which again I only partially recall, it was just the opposite. The marriage made Georgiana a celebrity, but within the broad boundaries set by the Duke’s basic demands, Georgiana cut a broad swath, became queen of the world of fashion, a huge celebrity, and the very center of high society and the arts, while holding a deep fascination for all of England and much of Europe. She lived hard, and very well for a time, and then eventually broke down and developed a horrible gambling addiction and lost her mojo by the end, like a fading Hollywood star. Foreman’s book did a convincing job of bringing to life a character that was a lot like what we’ve seen in modern society, a glamorous “it girl” buffeted by her own beauty, publicity, and the demands of stardom.
As I said, the book enriched my own view of the 18th century by identifying this fascinating and recognizable woman, all of it done in a serious historical manner. The movie, by contrast, played it safe and chose familiar filmic conventions about portraying the 18th century in telling its story. We know absolutely nothing afterwards that we didn’t know before, and it even makes it seem like Georgiana is a stock costume drama character. It’s not that the film is so bad in itself; and as I said, my own small crowd of viewers enjoyed it quite a bit. My guess is that the reviewers were mixed, giving Fiennes his kudos for a job well done, credit to the production design and to Knightly for beauty and good service. But it seems a missed opportunity. The Madness of King George, for instance, did a great job of getting inside a critical 18th century story in a revelatory and poignant way. And Amadeus, though I don’t remember it very well, created a semi-truthful spine to show us what it was like to be a doomed 18th century rock star and genuine musical genius. The Duchess played it more safe than I could have possibly imagined, the power of the Duke’s dark, dour character (and Fiennes’ performance) taking all of the fun and much of the life and meaning out of the film. Perhaps the failure of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette had an effect. I didn’t see that film but it apparently treated 18th century celebrity, youth culture, decadence, and fashion, and the makers of the Duchess might have decided to play it safe. So now I’ll go and look at some reviews.
Postscript: A glance at Rotten Tomatoes and review headlines shows them a bit happier than I would have guessed, but still mixed. Keira Knightly’s star power, beauty and perfect suitability, along with stunning costumes, counts for more than I thought, and it is all very impressive. And Google shows that Georgiana, Amanda Foreman and her book are all quite well-loved in the blog world–Georgiana even has her own pleasant and interesting website, georgianaduchessofdevonshire.blogspot.com. which I enjoyed and want to continue to explore: good 18th century stuff, by a young Art History PhD who had a great dissertation topic: portraits of the Duchess, more or less.
This raises an interesting subject for me, and one of the big topics on this blog: there are some notable similarities between Keira Knightly playing Georgiana and Leonardo DiCaprio playing Frank Wheeler. When we read books and get to know stories and characters, we think we have certain cinematic skills about how they might be realized as films. But as I said at the beginning, getting movies made is hard (ask Richard Yates), and making movies is no picnic either, involving literally millions of tiny, microscopic choices that end up being projected on a giant screen. There are also some determinative, momentous decisions, like casting central roles, and it’s worth giving movie stars credit. There were an astonishing number of close-ups in The Duchess, when KK is a massive figure on the screen, and she has the responsibility of inhabiting every single instant of that screen time, when every breath and glance and mood is glaring and must be motivated somehow, all of them with a camera three feet away from her face and an operator, DP, director, producer and crew watching and critiquing every move. And that’s not to mention all of the hours that lay behind every minute of screen time, hair and makeup and endless takes, master shots and covering scenes. It’s hard work to be so beautiful I guess. KK filled every moment and scene in the Duchess quite expertly and very well, and deserves all the credit in the world for the actual existence of the film. She is the one who made it possible for Ralph Fiennes to give a tour de force performance and show us film acting at a very high level. DiCaprio is a major league movie star of the highest order, and he bears the responsibility of his fame and the challenge of performance well. He will do his best to inhabit “Frank Wheeler,” and his version will be a fine one. Amanda Foreman said about The Duchess that a book is a book, and a movie is a movie, and they’re not the same thing. We all know this, but we can’t remind ourselves of it often enough.
The trick, I guess, would be to figure out how to put DiCaprio and Knightley in the same movie. Ideas, anyone?