Be Careful What You Wish For - Turns Out A Movie Dedicated to Keira's Jawline Isn't Very Good.
2 1/2 stars.
I tend to give Keira enormous leeway that I would never even consider bestowing upon another human being. For instance, if anyone else had a jaw that took up 75% of their face, I would say they were ugly. If another creature resembling a skeleton more than, say, an actual person who eats, starred in movies, I would helpfully suggest they look into participating in horror movies rather than period pieces. And if any other actor starred in a movie as bad as Silk, I would stop following their career. But Keira redeems herself time and time again by legitimately being a hardcore badass who is one of the top two or three best actresses of her generation, and it's the only reason why I even considered seeing a movie that looked as boring as The Duchess.
There are two reasons why this movie isn't particularly noteworthy. First of all, this has been done before, to the point where it's getting rather grating and tedious. I'm not sure why the movie-going public is honestly supposed to be bowled over by the idea that people in the 1700s not only diddled their wives, but occasionally sought bed partners who would best be described in present terminology as homewreckers. In this instance, it's more of a castlewrecker, but I digress. This is a two-hour movie that consists of little more than a naive but optimistic Keira getting hitched with a dour Ralph Fiennes, who spends his screen time looking extremely constipated and pissed (pun?), and then Keira sulking for a giant portion of the movie while Ralph screws other corsetted beings. Nothing new - people don't like getting cheated on (though Keira DOES have some legit beefs, as both her husband and his lover literally scream orgasmically through the castle while she's there. Besides not possessing deoderant/modern hygiene implements, tact also appears to be rather lacking.)
Think of the action Ralph could have gotten with THIS.
The ending - mild spoiler alert, as this isn't exactly a movie you go to looking for mouthdropping plot twists - is also supposedly to be edgy and really isn't. After lots of WASPy drama and emoting, the Duke and the Duchess continue to hang out together in the castle with the skanky ho who nearly sent Keira to the nearest moat. I'm by no means an expert on this time period, but again, it doesn't surprise me, and I doubt it would shock anyone else, that there would be living arrangements like this in the aristocratic British social circles of the late 1700s. I doubt it was a regular occurrence, but still. In fact, I would think a duchess would have to deal with a trampy third wheel living companion more often than, say, a barmaid. Although the barmaid would probably end up being that third wheel.
"Can I come live with you and Ralph?"
Now, the real dilemma for me came about halfway in, when I realized that 20% of the movie was just jawline closeups. Every time something inhumanly crappy happens to Keira, and that quickly becomes a regular occurrence, the camera just STAYS on the lower half of her face for about 40 seconds while Keira pensively stares out over her gynormous backyard. It's the English countryside equivalent of Jennifer Connolly in every one of her movies, except with a grayish body of water (see Requiem for a Dream, Dark Water, House of Sand and Fog, The Hulk). I stand by every positive accolade I have bestowed upon that jaw, but it turns out its potency is in moderation.
Also, some of the costumes went a LITTLE too far. I get that one of the only interesting activities you can do on a British period piece set is dress your star up in lots of dresses, corsets (there's a very disturbing quasi-sex scene with Keira and Ralph where he undresses her and we see the indentation of the corset on her back. The idea that an emaciatrix has to deal with tight apparel is kind of a downer.) and feathered hats, but when Keira's tromping around at regal balls dressed like the love child of a Musketeer and Dee Snider, I think a line has been crossed. A very serious one.
There's a very strange lesbo scene in this that has absolutely no relevance to the movie, but I feel it's worth noting since it's one of the only memorable moments I took away from the film. I'm still trying to figure out why it wasn't eliminated in post-production; the only theory I can grope at is that one of the film editors thought there was a slim chance they could attract that elusive 18-25 male demographic if rumors were circulated throughout the lands that Keira engages in some woman-on-woman love. Keira's BFF (who quickly becomes noted more for her loud moans than any semblance of friendly loyalty), realizes Keira's attraction to a young politician and subtly suggests that she seize the initiative. When Keira quickly (too quickly) squashes the idea, the evil BFF coyly tells her that a non-Ralph Fiennes experience would be infinitely more pleasurable than the awkward, solely for procreation shizzle we endured previously. Keira, believing that all sex is like Ralph Fiennes sex (this movie must have done WONDERS for his self-esteem), looks dubious, until the BFF starts unbuttoning her dress. Keira starts breathing heavily...and that's as far as it goes. It's very strange, and they never address the possibility that Keira might swing from the other side of the plate. In my mind, it would have made for a more interesting movie. Victorian, passive aggressive affairs are a dime a dozen, but a lesbian duchess? If that movie has been made, I have heard nothing of its existence. Also, the politician dude she ends up sleeping with looks more like a badger than a studly sex toy, which in my mind is a mistake.
"Keira, I am WAY better in the sack than Ralph!"
Despite a sense of overall pointlessness, The Duchess isn't a total crapfest. Keira is excellent in a fairly two-dimensional role, though she fails to capture the greatness of Pride and Prejudice or the near-greatness of Atonement. I'm not sure though that I buy the view that she brings hip modernity to these otherwise-antiquated characters she has been playing in recent years, which is a contention that I've read in multiple reviews for an assortment of Keira films. That theory works for a movie like P&P, which I believe was a solid success in 2005 purely because the character of Elizabeth Bennett is completely relatable to any era, as well as because it was a career-defining moment for the Jawed One. However, there's only so much you can do with a spurned duchess, and the fact that director Saul Dibb falls back on the jawline at the end of the day screams of desperation rather than completely understandable mandible love.