Alexandra Lange | Essays

England's Next Top Model

Huggett’s, the gas station mini-mart a short walk from my grandmother’s house has quite a good selection of movies (as well as a wine section and the New York Times). But it is hard to please three generations of women, two of whom (my mom and me) watch as many as four movies a week. The one evening we wandered up there in search of a movie, the best option seemed to be The Duchess, since none of us had seen it, we all love costume dramas, and it seemed unlikely to be too racy in either language or content for my grandmother’s taste.

How wrong we were! In one of a number of desprate attempts to make more current the oldest story in costume drama history (bad marriage to rich man), The Duchess had far more explicit sex scenes than your average romantic comedy. We were very glad my grandmother had retired by the time the duke raped the duchess.

But the sex was the least of the movie’s problems. I know that reviews of the biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire on which the film was based emphasized the parallels to Diana, Princess of Wales, but the film made it seem like Keira Knightley was (woodenly) playing Diana in dress-up. We were supposed to believe her as a wit and leader of the Whig party, as a fashionista who set trends in bird-nest wigs and as a tragic proto-feminist heroine, locked up in a loveless marriage by snobbery, convention and a mother’s love.

Georgiana’s wit was expressed in one cutting remark at a dinner, and her importance to the Whigs only in showy scenes of her wig giving talks on the hustings. Keira Knightley modeled the ridiculously large hats and dresses beautifully, but seemed to have nothing to say about them, and since there were hardly any other women in the movie, we had no one to compare her to. And as for love, of course all women deserve it, but would she really have asked for equal time for adultery?

I couldn’t even sink into the sets, as I did in the new Brisdehead Revisited because our TV was small, and the movie all filmed in static horizontal shots as if the actors were always posing for tableaux. In his two movies with Knightley, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, director Joe Wright used a similar format with far more fluidity, making and then breaking the neo-classical arrangements of people, furniture and urns. Saul Dibb, the director of The Duchess, laid on the slangy speech, but never let the duchess off her pedestal.

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