Lowdown: Keira Knightley struggles with the bindings of high society.
Not many contemporary films feature females as their main heroes; definitely less than 50% of them. The Duchess is therefore an exception to this generalization, with Keira Knightley dominating it, this begging the question – what do they see in her?
Knightley seems to have secured the position of chief heroine in old style British films, and the Duchess is no exception. Taking place in the late 18th century, the film tells us how a youngish Knightley marries an oldish duke (Ralf Fiennes) and how this move, that should have been the pinnacle of a fairytale come true, is actually the one thing that seals Knightley’s fate and freedom away. We quickly learn that Fiennes regards Knightley as merely a tool to provide him with a male heir; he’s totally indifferent to the concept of love. Knightley seeks refuge elsewhere and becomes popular with the people, who follow her as a celebrity. She moves on to secure a woman friend in a position not dissimilar to hers, and she looks for male love too.
Overall, the main topic on The Duchess’ agenda is freedom. The world of high society, considered to be made of people with enough wealth to detach themselves from the normal bindings of hard life, turns out to be a world with its own bindings. Freedom, according to The Duchess, is something one can only come close to when one is in the company of friends sharing similar ideas. Or sort of.
Other than a discussion on the concept of freedom, The Duchess is a mainly slow film that is, first and foremost, a very dull and boring affair. Suffering from insomnia? Well, what are you waiting for? Go and watch The Duchess!
You would expect the slow pace to be used wisely in the development of characters, but that is not always the case with The Duchess. Take her popularity with the crowds, for example: we never learn why she had become popular, especially why she is more popular than any of her peers; we just have to take the film’s word for it, literally, which is not the most convincing way of developing characters.
With a cast that tends to be annoying (e.g., Knightley) or doesn’t know why it’s there in the first place (e.g., Fiennes), this go at milking the cow that is the Jane Austen type of British period films is a failure that, although not harmful, is probably best avoided.
Knightley takes part in a meeting of The Whigs political party. She’s the only woman there, and she’s only allowed in because of her husband’s status as a major party sponsor. They’re having a discussion about freedom and about events taking place in America when Knightley lays down a speech on the absolute nature of freedom: One cannot be half free, says Knightley, just as one cannot be half dead.
The speech is obviously designed to make Knightley’s character seem just-so-smart before the movie viewers, but it just annoyed me. Knightley is wrong and freedom is obviously a relative concept: by her standards, I’m a really free person, yet I am not free to go on and steal from others or kill others. I would also argue there are varying degrees of death, but I won’t get into that discussion here and now. The point is, what is designed as a show of intellectual force fails miserably at the challenge of simple scrutiny.
Technical assessment: For a period film sporting lots of authentic settings and elaborate costumes, The Duchess’ picture quality is rather disappointing for a Blu-ray. The soundtrack is mundane, too.
Overall: A boring 2 out of 5 stars.