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A woman of the world: Knightley in The Duchess.

A Woman’s Place

By Laura Leon

The Duchess

Directed by Saul Dibb

 

Keira Knightley is a rare breed, a lovely young woman who can look oh-so-modern on the runway, but who, on screen, morphs perfectly into what we’d imagine to be the epitome of another century’s grace. Whether she’s swashbuckling in laced bodice and britches, or running across Austenian meadows in fluffy petticoats and snowy cap, she’s a romance heroine come to life—sort of. This quality has its downside, namely assuming that she’s nothing but a dress-up doll, a fetching mannequin on which to drape sumptuous fabrics and wait for the masses to come.

Watching The Duchess, however, one can’t help but notice that Knightley has come a long way from the chin-jutting minx of Pirates of the Caribbean. While I wouldn’t yet label her an artist, it’s clear, in her evocative portrayal of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, that she’s gained confidence and learned that subtlety and understatement are essential tools of her craft. Based on a book by Amanda Foreman, and directed by Saul Dibb (who cowrote the script with Anders Thomas Jensen and Jeffrey Hatcher), The Duchess is a statement about the role of women in society—in particular, their utter powerlessness—disguised as a period-piece soap opera. Teenage Georgiana, when informed by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), that she’s to become the bride of the much older Duke William (Ralph Fiennes), gushes, “Does he love me?” In this manner, we realize that despite accepting the fact that she’s been bred to, well, breed, preferably to a moneyed and titled family, this miss is enough of an innocent as to think that love ever has anything to do with it. Fast-forward several years, and we see Georgiana happily tending to her three daughters (one a product of the Duke’s fling with a maid) during the day while reigning supreme over high society at night.

The fly in the ointment of the duchess’s life is her “inability” to bear the Duke any sons, a lack whose presence he makes achingly clear in all interactions with his wife. While Georgiana displays political acumen in her conversations with the Whig politician Charles Fox (Simon McBurney) and his heir presumptive, Charles Gray (Dominic Cooper), and is kindness itself, William seems nothing more than a chilling case of entitlement. His best conversation is directed at his beloved dogs. When dinner guests bore him, he simply leaves the table. When Georgiana provokes him by proposing that, since he’s moved his mistress, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), into their home, he shouldn’t mind if she take up with her true love, Gray, his response is shockingly brutal. His reaction may seem at odds with the gentility of his line, but filmmaker Dibb is keen to make us think about the barbarities of the marriage contract, and to wonder if things have really changed all that much. For his part, Fiennes gives a tremendously moving performance, somehow making us, by film’s end, see more than callousness and incivility. Rather, he comes across as the product of a long line bound by duty and expectation, unable to come to terms with the vitality and sass of his wife, and deep down aggrieved at his own inability to be anything other than who he is. It’s a triumph.

The movie gets a little nauseating when Georgiana, stifled within the confines of society, seeks refuge in Gray’s arms. The problem here is that Dominic Cooper is a lightweight; he comes across as an overeager beagle bounding onto his mistress’s lap. The fact that Georgiana can follow a political speech, or that Gray can make one, is not sufficient to make us believe that either one of them is all that special.

But Dibb and company are more concerned with the possibility of what Georgiana could have, and what she must settle for. In this way, they make a few unadvised comparisons to the more modern, now departed, Lady Spencer. To compare Knightley’s fresh vitality and evident intelligence to the late Princess of Wales is cheap theatrics. At its best, The Duchess stays on point with its sweeping vistas and sumptuous interiors a stark contrast to its main characters’ Spartan inner lives, and by showing that Knightley is far more than the sum of her outrageous wigs and bustles.

War of Terror

Body of Lies

Directed by Ridley Scott

Adapted by A-list screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) from the novel by Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, Body of Lies is about the labyrinthine—and far from humanitarian—antiterrorism efforts of the CIA in the Middle East. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film is slick and exciting (“I’m not getting my head cut off on the Internet, if something goes wrong, shoot me,” says an Arab recruit). And it’s got plenty of star power: Leonardo DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, a Tarzanesque agent with ethics stationed in Iraq, and Russell Crowe is his CIA superior, Ed Hoffman, a ruthless operator who believes that no life should be spared to keep America safe from Islamic extremists. The combination of authentic source material and Scott’s visual acumen makes Body of Lies the most compelling terrorism thriller since Syriana.

Ferris, who speaks Arabic (DiCaprio is very recognizable even in a scraggly beard and dyed-black hair), is infiltrating a terrorist cell when he gets a lead on the whereabouts of a high-level Al Qaeda bomber. In a CIA confabulation-gone-wrong, his cover is blown and he gets shot up. After taking control—or so he thinks—of the operation from Hoffman, he returns to the pursuit in Jordan. With the flair of visualizing military strategies that he showed in Black Hawk Down, Scott maneuvers Ferris’ course of extreme danger and psychological gamesmanship. Hoffman follows Ferris’ every move by satellite surveillance, without regard for Ferris’, or anyone else’s, safety.

At the heart of the film’s triangulated web of espionage are the use, misuse, and consequences of deceit. To Hoffman, lying is an integral part of the job, which forces Ferris to team up with the Jordanian head of intelligence, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong). Saalam answers only to the king of Jordan, and he deals harshly with those who break his policy of honesty. Conundrums abound. “You are not capable of secrecy because you are a democracy,” asserts Salaam, who sees the difference between secrecy and deceit more definitively than the Americans. Yet despite his respect for his Jordanian ally, Ferris resorts to duplicity.

The plot encounters most of the issues of the war on terrorism, and does so incisively, though it presents the extremists in a more favorable light than is relevant to the film’s view of religious zealotry. (Monahan also scripted Scott’s Eastern-leaning crusades actioner, Kingdom of Heaven.) Body of Lies also gets overly convoluted by the subplots of Hoffman’s subterfuges. But Crowe’s performance—Hoffman oozes Southern cordiality even as he’s pulling the strings—is such that his machinations add to the suspense. DiCaprio blazes intensity as an agent on the edge; Ferris believes in his work, but as he rails in the film’s most memorable diatribe, the war’s methodology is an insane travesty. And in that, he speaks the truth.

—Ann Morrow


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