There’s a great moment in “The West Wing” when Josh is preparing to meet some brainy NASA scientist who wants to take him stargazing and show him how majestic the night sky is so she can secure White House funding for a mission to Mars, or something like that. Normally it’s not something Josh would be caught dead doing, but the scientist is a chick (played by Christina Chang), and she isn’t ugly. Josh’s shrewd secretary, Donna, calls him on it. “Would you be going if she weren’t attractive?” she asks. He thinks about it, then replies, with spectacular honesty: “We’ll never know.”
That’s basically how I feel about The Duchess. Would I have enjoyed this straightforward British period piece as much as I did if it didn’t star Keira Knightley, whom I firmly believe to be not only the most beautiful woman in the world but also the finest actress of her generation? We’ll never know. But as it is, golly I sure did like it.
The movie’s story is familiar but nonetheless intriguing (it’s also apparently mostly true, though that matters little to me). It concerns Georgiana, a beautiful, intelligent, middle-class woman who catches the eye of an aristocrat; he promptly weds her despite having been in her presence only twice before. Sadly for our heroine, her well-to-do husband sees her not as a companion for life but as a piece of fertile property whose job is to bear him a male heir.
The husband in question is, of course, the Duke of Devonshire, and it doesn’t hurt the movie’s meticulous pedigree that he’s played to haughty perfection by Ralph Fiennes. It’s been 15 years since he embodied evil in Schindler’s List, but Fiennes hasn’t lost his taste for villainy. Earlier this year he chewed the Belgium scenery as a mildly psychotic hit man in In Bruges, and he’s once again encapsulating malevolence as Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies. Here he’s far cooler but no less cruel, and his supreme indifference falters only when it gives way to sexual animalism. Near the end of The Duchess, he forces a smile, his only one of the film – it looks as though making such a gesture must have made his jaw hurt.
But for all his splendid entitlement, Fiennes only has a supporting role – after all, the movie isn’t called The Duke. Director Saul Dibb knows who his star is, and he makes sure we know it too. His camera frames Keira Knightley in closeup again and again, leading and following and circling her, exalting in her beauty and her grace. She makes his job easy; when she’s gliding toward the camera, eyes fixed on you, you won’t be looking anywhere else. There is plenty of beauty to be found in The Duchess – it captures the lavishness of aristocratic privilege with a lush grandiosity befitting the period – but none more so than in the high cheekbones and hypnotic eyes of its star. Unlike Keira Knightley’s prior film, The Duchess won’t damage your soul, but it’s certainly pleasing to the eye.
About that other film, let me just be clear: The Duchess is no Atonement. Not even close. This is hardly damning criticism – Atonement was so emotionally provocative that it nearly put me into a coma, and those types of shockwaves don’t get produced very often. It was a flawless picture, whereas The Duchess manifests a few problems, the central one being that Georgiana is destined to fall in love with Charles Grey, played by the moderately handsome and altogether bland Dominic Cooper. Perhaps I was put off by Cooper because he isn’t as dreamy as James McAvoy was in Atonement, but the romance between Georgiana and Charles – a passion the plot requires to be charged and all-consuming – is flat. It seems to function more as a plot device than as mutual, desperate longing. There’s a marvelous anticipatory scene early on where Georgiana’s friend, Bess (Hayley Atwell, who looked gorgeous earlier this year in Cassandra’s Dream – standing next to Keira Knightley here, she looks downright frumpy, but I suppose that isn’t her fault), gives her a taste of pleasure, but that teasing encounter winds up trumping the real thing when it occurs later on.
This is not to say The Duchess is devoid of emotion. Georgiana’s predicament is a dire one, and Keira Knightley again effortlessly utilizes her commanding screen presence to draw us into her character’s pain. Most of the film’s early scenes capitalize on her vibrance and vitality, with her delicate smile lending the proceedings a light, buoyant air. As the plot grows darker, however, she taps into a deep reservoir of emotion to reveal desire and, more acutely, despair. A scene late in The Duchess ends with Georgiana wailing, but we don’t need to see tears on that beautiful face of Keira Knightley to recognize when she’s in pain. One look into her eyes says it all.
But if I’m making The Duchess seem like a downer, don’t be worried. It has its sad moments, but it’s truthfully meant to be enjoyed, for its splendor and execution and its luminous star. It’s escapist entertainment, really – the opportunity to spend 100 minutes with a beautiful, talented, and altogether magnificent actress. How could I not enjoy that? Because let’s face it: If Keira Knightley ever offered to take me stargazing, I wouldn’t think twice.