The Duchess

The nominations:

  • Achievement in Art Direction – Michael Carlin (Art Direction) and Rebecca Alleway (Set Direction)
  • Achievement in Costume Design – Michael O’Connor.

The Black-and-White:

A review by Moviegirl

Full disclosure: I watched this on my computer. In half-screen mode. While knitting. So it’s possible that I may not have experienced the look of the movie or the costumes to their best advantage.

On the other hand, well… read on.

Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia:

Set at the end of the eighteenth century, The Duchess is based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. While her beauty and charisma made her name, her extravagant tastes and appetite for gambling and love made her infamous. Married young to the older, distant Duke of Devonshire, who was blatantly unfaithful, Georgiana became a fashion icon, a doting mother, a shrewd political operator, intimate of ministers and princes, and darling of the common people. But at the core of the story is a desperate search for love. The film delves into Georgiana’s passionate and doomed affair with Earl Grey, the future Prime Minister, and the complex love triangle with her husband and her best friend, Lady Bess Foster.

First — since you’re probably wondering after reading that synopsis — yes, Sir Charles Grey is that Earl Grey.

earl grey tea

Also, while we’re on the subject of historic fun facts, Althorp Estate, where the movie opens, is indeed that Althorp — where Princess Diana grew up (The Duchess was Diana’s great-great-etc. aunt).

Oh, and for fans of the 2005 Pride & Predudice (also starring Keira Knightley), your eyes don’t decieve you: that is Pemberley.

And, not to confuse things even further, but, yes, Earl Grey is also Mr. Willoughby v.2008.

But back to this movie.

The synopsis and the “making of” featurette give the impression that this is a movie about a woman who was a trailblazer — a political maverick who was equally unlucky in love and gambling.

It may be historically accurate that The Duchess was an important political figure, but that never really comes through in the film. Instead, it languishes into the same series of events that makes up every drama about the 18th century aristocracy (and perhaps aristocracy in general) — loveless arranged marriage, unfaithful husband, secret lovers, substance abuse, and so on.

There was simply no tension in the plot, no wondering whether the first child would be the hoped-for heir (it wasn’t), or whether her husband could keep his pants on around her best friend (he couldn’t), or whether she would resist sleeping with Earl Grey (she didn’t) and later whether she would resist her mother’s and husband’s demand that she give him up (she didn’t). Even the resulting pregnancy from the affair and the abandonment of that child were only interesting in that the child became the ancestor of Fergie. (You always knew Diana and Fergie were descended from the same family, right? Well, here’s the connection.)

Because of the predictability of the story, the costumes and sets provided really the only interest in the movie. The costumes are as gorgeous as you would expect in a corset drama, with flowing silks and rich textures. Having watched the DVD special feature about the costumes, it’s clear that the designer worked closely with the production team to ensure that each character’s wardrobe developed along with the development of the story and the character. For example, The Duchess’s clothes start out light and end dark after she returns from giving up her baby and reenters society. By contrast, the best friend’s clothes start out dark (since she is in an abusive marriage when she and The Duchess meet), and end light since she ends up marrying The Duke after The Duchess dies.

Michael O’Connor had a rich historical record to draw upon in creating the costumes, as there are many portraits of The Duchess at her home, in addition to several illustrations and accounts in the papers because of her political activism. This is the first nomination for O’Connor and he probably stands a good chance. Corset dramas don’t automatically beat out the competition, but it’s the only one on the slate this year, all the rest being set in the 20th century. In my mind, it is just not as much of a challenge to create a wardrobe for the 1970s as it is to create one for 1770s. On the other hand, the Oscar folks might not have been able to concentrate on the costumes enough to vote for this movie if, like me, they spent most of their time looking up at the sky and yelling “Stand up STRAIGHT, Keira!”

The art direction/set design was also a bright spot, and it’s hard to go wrong with the locations where the scenes were shot. They were lucky to be able to use The Duchess’s actual home (Chatsworth a.k.a. Pemberley v.2005) as well as many of the other actual locations in London and Bath that were part of The Duchess’s life.

Again, this is the only corset drama nominated this year, with the rest all being 20th century America. Having seen only one of the other nominees in this category, I still think that The Duchess stands a good chance of winning as first-time nominees Michael Carlin and Rebecca Alleway clearly went to great lengths to give the audience a sense of The Duchess’s world.

Despite the great costumes and lovely look of the film, I can’t really recommend renting this movie. But if you must, consider bringing your knitting.

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