Movie review by Greg Carlson
This review was published for Southpawfilmworks the week of 12/29/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
This review was published for Southpawfilmworks the week of 12/29/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
With the release of “Seven Pounds,” superstar Will Smith earns the distinction of appearing in two of the year’s worst films. Along with “Hancock,” “Seven Pounds” makes a strong case that the charismatic performer has been taking ego-inflation lessons from pal Tom Cruise. Even so, Smith did not attain his global entertainment clout by being stupid, and he has thus far managed to insulate his persona from harm even when the films in which he appears smell like sewage. Reunited with director Gabriele Muccino, who fared better with “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith assumes the monumental challenge of breathing likability into a passive-aggressive, guilt-ridden, suicidal Good Samaritan.
A minefield of potential spoilers awaits any conscientious reviewer who attempts to untangle the dubious plot of “Seven Pounds,” especially since the film’s climax depends on one’s lack of knowledge of key details. From a screenwriting standpoint, the movie’s fractured narrative is a masterstroke in protection against criticism, covering up holes in logic too massive to be addressed in any other fashion. The film opens with the 911 call in which Smith’s Ben Thomas reports his suicide. Audience members are then left with the unsettling task of spending the remainder of the running time building up to the melodramatic moment.
Ben’s distress call merely signals the beginning of a herky-jerky parade of disjointed scenes that make little sense even when the movie’s devastating dark secret is revealed. A weird prelude of seemingly unconnected incidents suggests that Ben has decided to change the lives of several strangers, some of whom he has culled from the delinquency column of the IRS database. Among the group are Woody Harrelson as a blind call-center operator and Rosario Dawson as a printmaker with an enlarged heart. Like a bizarre stalker, Ben insinuates himself into their lives in a creepy way, determining whether they might be worthy of something he can give. In addition to Harrelson and Dawson, he also harasses a negligent nursing home director and signs over his oceanfront vacation home to a battered mother.
Through all of this nonsense, the script withholds too much vital information, which has the deleterious effect of making the whole journey completely frustrating. Clever and impatient viewers will be able to discern the meaning of the movie’s enigmatic title long before a revelatory shot in the final reel explains it. A similar title and storytelling strategy was used in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s superior if no less far-fetched “21 Grams,” but the poorly paced “Seven Pounds” lacks the directorial sophistication and thoughtfulness of the 2003 film.
Once Ben’s intentions are made known, “Seven Pounds” collapses like a beachcomber stung by a poisonous jellyfish. Simultaneously preposterous and grotesque, the entire enterprise feels something like a tasteless joke played on a naïve and trusting acquaintance. Perhaps not all of the blame rests with Smith, but Ben Thomas is a horrendous person, switching from self-effacement to vindictiveness as he passes judgment on others. In so doing, Thomas cultivates a smug, godlike status without addressing the possibility that he might be able to forgive himself. In the end, the real mystery of “Seven Pounds” is how it seemed like a good idea in the first place.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/22/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
Robert Wise’s 1951 “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a touchstone of the science fiction genre. A smart, well-paced movie that has managed to transcend the handful of elements that are now outdated (in particular, the “gee whiz” dialogue of Billy Gray’s precocious Bobby Benson), the film boasts solid pacing, a memorable, theremin-infused and oft-mimicked score by Bernard Herrmann, and a trove of images that have become iconic. From robot Gort’s solemn watchfulness to the eerie landing of the flying saucer in Washington, D.C., “The Day the Earth Stood Still” inspired generations of filmmakers and film fanatics. A remake seemed inevitable.
Unfortunately for movie lovers, the new version fails to better the original in any significant way. Instead of addressing what minor narrative deficiencies existed in Edmund North’s screenplay, director Scott Derrickson’s take cranks up the action and the special effects without retaining enough of the original’s thoughtfulness. Fans have debated the ending of the 1951 version for decades, arguing about Klaatu’s warning of the Old Testament-like fury that will be unleashed if the human race continues to misbehave. Does the threat of destruction undercut the free will necessary for global societies to want to change for the good of the planet?
Keanu Reeves, projecting his well-worn, emotion-free persona, is not a bad choice to play alien messenger Klaatu, but he never measures up to the calm dignity of Michael Rennie. Jennifer Connelly assumes the role played by Patricia Neal, although Helen Benson’s occupation has been upgraded from secretary to Princeton scientist. Additionally, Helen’s son Bobby has been replaced by a stepson named Jacob. Unlike the trusting, well-behaved Bobby, Jacob is skeptical of Klaatu, and his distrust of the interstellar emissary contributes to one of the script’s biggest complications.
The 2008 update hangs on to Professor Barnhardt and his blackboard, but John Cleese is given only one scene in which to make an impact. The change of spaceship landing location from D.C. to NYC’s Central Park erases some of the political impact of Wise’s telling, and the smooth disc is now presented as a pulsating, glowing orb. Some credit should be given to the filmmakers for retaining the basic cyclopean design of Gort, even if the new robot has been spending more hours in the gym sculpting his physique. Gort’s role and function parallels his classic raison d’etre, but now he is capable of disintegrating into millions of insectoid nanites that devour whatever crosses their path like a plague of locusts.
More unwelcome is the presence of Kathy Bates’ Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson. Representing the typical lack of sophistication required of the government’s “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality, her scenes are forced and rushed in equal measure, and it is easy to tell that Bates spent very little time on the shoot. Had David Scarpa’s script jettisoned Jackson in favor of spending some time exploring the idea of Klaatu’s fellow travelers (tantalizingly introduced in a clever scene with veteran actor James Hong), it might have opened up more of the planet-wide perspective so ahead of its time in 1951.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/15/08.
Interview by Greg Carlson
In October of 2008, Minnesota State University Moorhead film studies professor Tom Brandau’s short documentary “Mr. Brown” was named best film in the Minnesota State Historical Society’s Greatest Generation Moving Pictures Film Competition. HPR Associate Film Editor Greg Carlson spoke with Brandau about his accomplishment. The movie is available to view in its entirety at www.mnhs.org.
High Plains Reader: First of all, congratulations on the award and the movie. How did you originally hear about the contest?
Tom Brandau: I had known about the contest for a few years. It was an initiative that came out of the historical society’s program Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, which had been started a few years ago to recognize and honor the men and women who grew up in Minnesota during the Great Depression, came of age during World War II, and ushered in the boom years after the war.
My producer Jenn Bakken and I had been talking about making a film for the competition since the first year, but every summer something else would always come up and we’d run out of time. We knew that 2008 was going to be the final year and we were determined that one way or another we would have an entry ready by the deadline.
HPR: What drew you to the topic area?
TB: As far as my interest in the subject, well that goes back many years. I’m a history nut to begin with and I’m especially interested in the past hundred years. Like many people my age, I grew up hearing stories of the Great Depression and World War II from my parents and grandparents. Having an opportunity to make a film about someone from that era was more than enough incentive.
HPR: How did you find out you had won? What was that like?
TB: Well the whole thing was somewhat dramatic and a bit nerve racking. The day of the awards ceremony all of the entries, in this case more than 50, were screened at different venues in the Twin Cities. The ceremony itself was held at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. None of the winners were announced beforehand; we just showed up and were told that all five of the winners would be screened in no particular order and then the awards would be announced afterward.
I was sitting with Lori Neal, one of the actors in the film, and when they showed “Mr. Brown” she grabbed my arm and said, “We won!” Of course at that moment we didn’t know what we had won. I had assumed that if we were going to win anything it would probably be the award for Best Collaboration, especially considering that more than 50 people helped to make the film.
So when they announced the winner for Best Collaboration and it wasn’t us, we started playing “process of elimination.” We knew that only three of the five awards could apply to “Mr. Brown” and when we eliminated those three, Lori looked at me with a big smile and said, “We took the top prize!” It was a really fun moment. I looked up at Jim Brown, sitting in the back, and he gave me a big smile too.
HPR: Tell us a little bit about how Jim Brown became your subject.
TB: I was originally going to make a film about Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella and the efforts to integrate minor league baseball in the late 1940s. After talking with author Steve Hoffbeck, I set about researching the idea and began pre-production. It was while I was researching the baseball idea that I came across Jim Brown. Several people had recommended I interview Jim because he was very knowledgeable about the roots of black baseball in Minnesota and was old enough to remember going to minor league games back in the 1940s.
The problem was that no one knew how to get in touch with Jim. At one point I was told he had published several stories on the Minnesota Historical Society website, so I went there and started reading his work. I was immediately drawn to his stories, especially the autobiographical nature of them.
One story, “The Birthday Party” really struck me. It told of an incident that happened to Jim as a child, where he had been invited to a white friend’s birthday party only to be turned away at the door by the boy’s mother. I immediately saw the dramatic possibilities of retelling that poignant moment in Jim’s life. I called my producer Jenn Bakken and said, “We’re changing focus. We’re going to make a film about Jim Brown.” After she read his stories she agreed and we finally found Jim and proceeded with the interview process.
HPR: How much footage did you end up shooting?
TB: We shot about ten hours worth of material. Of course most of that footage was interview material with Jim. I spent three solid days with him talking about the particulars of his life from childhood to the present. Other than his amazing memory for detail, the thing that impressed me the most about Jim during those sessions was his stamina.
He just turned 81 in August and when I finally talked with him he told me that he had been dealing with cancer treatments and had lost about 100 pounds. I was concerned that the interview process might be too taxing on his health, but it really didn’t show. In fact I think it kind of rejuvenated him. Jim’s a tough guy.
HPR: What did Jim Brown say to you when “Mr. Brown” was named the winner of the contest?
TB: He didn’t really say anything. He just gave me a big smile and that was the best part of the whole thing. It was great to see Jim get the recognition he deserves.
This interview was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/8/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
Longtime admirers comfortable with Baz Luhrmann’s “more is more” approach to filmmaking will roll with the sweeping pageantry of “Australia,” an expansive romance that wears its heart on its sleeve in every scene. “Australia” is a long-winded pastiche of classic Hollywood cinema, aping significant chunks of revered titles from “The African Queen” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Red River.” Infused with the director’s signature enthusiasm, “Australia” never quite finds a way to let its outsize comic earnestness live in harmony with a serious dearth of sophistication. Of course, Luhrmann has never been on speaking terms with subtlety, but “Australia” sorely needs it, along with a pair of editing room scissors.
Clocking in at a button-popping 165 minutes, “Australia” is essentially two features glued together as one. The movie’s first half, which focuses on the emotional transformation of a stuffy British aristocrat during a treacherous cattle drive, overshadows the second portion, which reconstructs the attack on Darwin by the Japanese in February of 1942. The overall look and feel of the air raid echoes the worst of Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” and layers of digital compositing have a tendency to make the bombing resemble a cartoon.
Luhrmann has maintained a passionate love affair with movie culture, and “Australia” relies heavily on the filmmaker’s ardor for features of decades past. “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” is used like a mallet whenever a lump in the throat is needed, and the song’s inclusion as a motif feels a little mercenary. The jukebox pillaging that worked in “Moulin Rouge” does not fly this time, and Luhrmann shouldn’t need to rely on the work done by someone else’s masterpiece to manipulate the emotions of his audience.
Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman generate plenty of steam as the mismatched lovers of the Charlie Allnut/Rose Sayer school of opposites attracting. Jackman, as a rough and tumble horseman known by his professional moniker as “the Drover” fares slightly better than Kidman, who never quite transcends the brittle, porcelain veneer that has served her longer than necessary. It is a given that Luhrmann will stack the familiar tropes sky high, and the obviousness of beauty-and-the-beast screwball proves far easier to stomach than the moustache-twirling of David Wenham’s flat, putrid, racist, murderous villain, whose plot is wrapped up in the most ridiculous manner possible.
The best epic storytelling finds a way to balance interpersonal relationships and romances with the weight of historical events swirling all around, but “Australia” lurches in several directions as Luhrmann attempts to reconcile the Australian government’s treatment of Aboriginals of the “Stolen Generations.” The adorable Nullah (Brandon Walters), often referred to in the movie as a “creamy” or a “half caste,” gives the angles dealing with indigenous Australians a near overdose of cuteness, but other performers, especially the phenomenal David Gulpilil and David Ngoombujarra are better able to convey some of the pain the movie seeks to examine. “Australia” is by no means a disaster, but Luhrmann could use a strong collaborator who might help reign in some of the bold fantasist’s tendencies toward excess.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/1/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
It is no secret that most youth-oriented film franchises are created for and marketed to teen boys, so the idea of a wildly popular series aimed at girls of the same age makes “Twilight” a little easier to swallow than its tepid construction might otherwise merit. Based on the inaugural volume in Stephenie Meyer’s publishing juggernaut, director Catherine Hardwicke’s movie version captures only the tiniest spark of the best filmmaking qualities she displayed in the slightly overrated “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown.” An overhaul, or perhaps more to the point, revamp (pun intended), of the lore and legend of bloodsuckers from Stoker’s Count Dracula to Rice’s Lestat, “Twilight” juggles several expectations while remaining true to the genre’s seductive and sensual foundations.
Like Joel Schumacher’s 1987 “The Lost Boys,” “Twilight” jettisons most of the unsavory aspects of vampirism in favor of teenage angst and cool. When Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) leaves sunny Arizona to live with her police chief dad in perpetually drizzly Forks, Washington, she falls hard for pale Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), a member of a clan of nosferatu pledged not to drink human blood. Edward might think of himself as a “bad guy,” but his actions prove the opposite, especially when he draws on his superhuman strength and speed to save Bella from serious injury in a car wreck.
Meyer’s conceptual masterstroke, which translates efficiently to the big screen, is Edward’s internal struggle to refrain from sinking his fangs into Bella’s pretty neck. Working perfectly as an allegorical corollary to the teen abstinence movement, Edward’s pledge to protect Bella and remain in control of his desires is the engine that drives the movie’s blend of perpetual longing and honorable chastity. Stewart and Pattinson have the chemistry to pull it off, and several of the movie’s strongest scenes allow the lovers to explore their romantic feelings without going “all the way.”
The courtship of Bella and Edward unfolds leisurely during the first half of the movie, and Hardwicke reasserts the aptitude for the rhythms and patterns of teen communication that she demonstrated in her previous features. “Twilight” takes a major nosedive, however, with the introduction of a silly trio of nomadic vampires who encroach on Cullen family turf. The script fails to explore the motivations of the movie’s true antagonists, and viewers are left with flat, wooden villains unable to generate any intrigue or interest. An insensible ballet studio showdown with one of the evil revenants meant as the movie’s dramatic climax comes across as a futile and dreadfully dull story-topper.
“Twilight” tacks on a shameless denouement that all but trumpets the inevitable sequel. As the credits roll, the tragically hip will cringe at the inclusion of Radiohead’s “15 Step,” out of place alongside the more pedestrian sounds of Linkin Park, Mute Math and Paramore. The younger viewers will not locate any disparity in the choice of tunes, two of which are performed by star Pattinson. Instead, they will be comparing notes on the latest actor to achieve virtually instant heartthrob status and imagining what it would be like to be held in his arms, high above the ground in the branches of a towering tree.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/24/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
“Quantum of Solace” is several notches below “Casino Royale,” but Daniel Craig continues to demonstrate that his James Bond is arguably the best. Directed by Marc Forster, whose eclectic choices behind the camera can be hit or miss, “Quantum of Solace” manages a noteworthy pair of Bond statistics: it is the shortest movie in the series to date, running more than a half hour tighter than its predecessor, and it is also the first of the Bond films to pick up immediately where the previous story left off. Beyond those two facts, there is little to distinguish “Quantum of Solace,” which is encumbered by hellacious, disorienting editing during its many action sequences as well as an awful, thudding score by David Arnold.
While nowhere near the bottom of the heap in the Bond archive – it is handily better than any of the Brosnan and Dalton entries – “Quantum of Solace” won’t be placed near the top by many franchise fans either. Forster spends too much time staging action at the expense of the downtime needed to explore the revitalized Bond, who is still learning the ropes and figuring out the angles of the 00 license. It is still novel, if not fascinating, to see a Bond portrayal that suggests a rookie as opposed to a veteran, but one gets the feeling that by the next outing, that particular aspect of the storyline will be shelved.
The movie Bond’s voracious sexual appetite for exotic partners has been scrutinized by pop culture academics for years (recall the discussions of the post-HIV epidemic Bond in the reviews of an earlier decade’s “reboot”), but the agent’s persuasive way with the opposite sex has been a sacred cow, as certain as the sunrise. No rules demand that Bond have intercourse with every significant female whose path he crosses, and “Quantum of Solace” is particularly lean on eroticism. Bond’s relationship with fellow revenge-seeker Camille (Olga Kurylenko) is chaste, but the screenplay does squeeze in a dalliance with Gemma Arterton’s Strawberry Fields, whose fate is revealed in a clever visual nod to “Goldfinger.”
Considering the popularity of the “Bourne” series, one can easily understand why a Cold War relic like the Bond suite would brush the dust from itself in imitation. Some longtime followers will cringe at the latest Bond’s similarities to Bourne, but if the Craig era continues to explore a darker Bond of the “blunt instrument” variety described by Fleming (and Judi Dench’s M in “Casino Royale”), it makes sense to linger a bit when the man chokes the life out of an attacker. A less cartoonish Bond universe, which seems to be Craig’s cup of tea, beats the silly gadgetry and inane wordplay that some admirers cling to like a security blanket.
If one accepts the premise that there can be a Bond for every generation, then making the character a bit richer and deeper risks nothing; after all, if that tactic does not work, the series can find a new lead and start all over again (again). “Casino Royale,” in allowing Bond to develop feelings for Vesper Lynd (who is very much missed in “Quantum of Solace”), recalled “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” a cult favorite. In the new film, we are told that Bond acts out of grief, but the screenplay avoids any kind of psychological exploration of the operative’s motives. The inclusion of that sort of content could really shake up the rigid Bond universe.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/17/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
It is a safe bet that many of the published reviews of “Role Models” will reference its similarity to the movies of current comedy juggernaut Judd Apatow. Apatow has perfected the art of the “bromance” as well as the blending of warm-hearted positivism and crass vulgarity. Movies like “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” have set a course for a kind of contemporary American humor that will be identified as its own particular subset of the comedy genre in years to come. David Wain, a brilliant comic mind in his own right, is the director and co-writer of “Role Models,” but the movie lacks much of the skewed worldview that defines funnier efforts like “Stella” and “Wainy Days.”
Actor Paul Rudd, who has collaborated with Wain on several projects, is joined by Seann William Scott, still effectively mining the oversexed party animal persona he originated as Steve Stifler in the “American Pie” series. The two of them are supposed to be best pals, although one immediately gets the feeling that Rudd’s bitter, angry, and sarcastic Danny doesn’t feel the same level of fraternity as Scott’s Wheeler. As pitchmen for an overpriced energy drink, Danny and Wheeler travel to schools in a tricked-out minotaur-themed monster truck. On one especially bad day in a chain of bad days, Danny’s rage leaves the buddies on the wrong side of the law.
Wain never seems very far away from fellow members of cult comedy troupe The State, and finds many laughs in the story of a pair of man-children whose arrested development catches up with them in the shape of court-ordered community service in a mentorship program called Sturdy Wings. Thanks in no small part to the effortless timing and charm of Rudd (another of the film’s credited writers), “Role Models” sustains its featherweight premise for more than half of the total running time. Filmmakers who emulate Apatow in the pursuit of his level of box office success, however, rarely have his uncanny ability to make the warm, fuzzy, lessons-learned part of the story work, and the last section of “Role Models” feels half-hearted, as if Wain might have preferred a less happy ending.
Once Danny and Wheeler meet their “littles” at Sturdy Wings, the movie divides its time between the nerd-heavy world of live action role-playing inhabited by cape-wearing Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is paired with Danny, and the sewer-mouthed antics of pint-sized Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson), who alternates between antagonizing Wheeler and picking up the man’s girl-watching techniques. Both of the kids are good, although audience members familiar with Mintz-Plasse’s turn as McLovin in “Superbad” might not buy him as a seemingly younger, less worldly version of the high school geek.
The remainder of the cast, including terrific supporting players like Ken Marino (another of the movie’s writers), Ken Jeong and Jo Lo Truglio, is excellent, but it is Jane Lynch who steals the movie as Sturdy Wings founder and former cokehead Gayle Sweeny. Lynch is brilliant as the off-kilter, high-strung motivator, and the way in which she caroms wildly from protective and nurturing to thoroughly age-inappropriate provides the film with its most memorable moments. Blurting out intimate information with shockingly unfiltered self-disclosure, the veteran Lynch proves once again that she deserves her own lead role in one of these types of comedies.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/10/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
Like Fellini’s “8 1/2,” writer-director Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” fictionalizes the filmmaker’s own career aspirations through the gauze covered lens of sideways self-mythologizing. Mirroring Smith’s breakout debut “Clerks,” “Zack and Miri” is based on the premise that a group of pals can kiss minimum wage slavery goodbye simply by stitching together a raunchy flick that can be sold back to like-minded true believers. Smith’s latest reaffirms the director’s position as Hollywood’s ultimate underachiever. Neither the presence of Judd Apatow regulars nor the spiffy technical work can hide the fact that Smith has never been much of a visual storyteller. Instead, his greatest gift remains his ear for blue dialogue, which wallpapers nearly every square inch of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”
Some Smith supporters might fawn over what passes for the movie’s heart, in this case the time-honored premise that two childhood playmates, despite the platonic boundaries of their longtime friendship, are really meant to be together as happily-ever-after lovers. In Smith’s world, these protagonists (not to mention the rest of the cast), curse like longshoremen, and their idea of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” entrepreneurship is to slap together an X-rated quickie just to be able to pay the water and electric bills.
Given the large number of “Zack and Miri” cast members who have appeared in recent Apatow-produced or directed comedies, Smith has taken some lumps for rehashing, reheating, and perhaps attempting to cash in on Apatow’s market. To be fair, Smith has long favored the blend of potty-mouthed vulgarity and romantic traditionalism packaged so expertly by Apatow, but one cannot help feeling that “Zack and Miri” suffers in comparison to “Knocked Up” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” A few Smith stalwarts, including Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson, are on hand, although Mewes is nowhere near as much fun in the role of porn wannabe Lester as he is when playing his signature role of marijuana-addled Jay.
“Zack and Miri Make a Porno” never approaches the cleverness of “Chasing Amy” (still Smith’s best work), but it does transcend fairly low expectations in a couple of scenes, including a pre-Thanksgiving high school reunion and the brief tease of a “Star Wars”-inspired porn parody. The former, which captures a certain degree of the desperation felt by people in their late 20s faced with the prospect of explaining their lack of success to former classmates, stunt-casts Justin Long as Brandon Routh’s lover. The latter disappears almost as quickly as it arrives, as if Smith began to worry that a Dianoga dildo might raise the ire of George Lucas.
As the title pair, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks work up a sweat trying to act their way around the blandness of their characters as conceived by Smith. The homogeneity of the director’s creations – nearly all Smith’s mouthpieces think and speak alike – is the movie’s central deficiency. With the exception of Craig Robinson, the other members of Zack and Miri’s unlikely family of pornographers are flat and unformed as recognizable human beings. We learn nothing, for example, about Traci Lords’ Bubbles beyond her signature sexual talent. Had the movie been as funny as it is earnest, one might have overlooked these flaws.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/3/08.
Movie review by Greg Carlson
Keira Knightley fans anxious to see the talented performer in another sumptuous period melodrama will not be as disappointed as 18th century history buffs by “The Duchess,” a beautiful but largely inert costume ball helmed by Saul Dibb. Recounting the remarkable life of Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, who became the wife of William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, “The Duchess” makes up in production and costume design what it lacks in compelling narrative. What could have been a captivating tale of the intellectual maneuvering and gamesmanship needed for a woman to survive the oppression of a crushingly sexist era ends up a fairly average example of the genre.
As discussed by Amanda Foreman in her book “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire,” upon which the movie’s script is based, the young Duchess successfully navigated the challenging social and political worlds of the late 1700s while trapped and constrained in an unhappy match. The film is far less successful in balancing those two themes than was Georgiana, and most of the time the viewer’s attention is directed to the enormous pressure on the heroine to produce a male heir. The movie includes the horrific reality of marital rape, but avoids dealing in any complex manner with the particulars of the Duke and Duchess’ interpersonal day-to-day, beyond the suggestion that the man was cold, distant, and more interested in his dogs than his spouse.
While Dibb does manage to squeeze in a fair number of scenes based on anecdotal record, including a brief dramatization of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play “The School for Scandal,” the movie spends most of its duration focused on the title character’s marital discord and unfulfilled promise. The audience is reminded numerous times of Georgiana’s popularity with the public, but the film accomplishes very little in the way of explaining the convictions behind the young woman’s Whig Party beliefs. One extravagant dinner scene offers the tiniest glimpse of Georgiana’s rhetorical gifts, but too often the political takes a back seat to affairs of the heart, including the steamy, doomed flirtation between Georgiana and childhood friend Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who would become Prime Minister.
Arguably the most compelling angle of Georgiana’s story is the open ménage a trois completed by the Duke’s romantic entanglement with the Duchess’ friend and confidante Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), who lived openly as the Duke’s mistress for a number of years. Even though the three shared a home, the movie neglects to explore the psychological impact of her husband’s affair on the Duchess in any depth, and blithely skips from Georgiana’s sympathy with her close friend to bitter jealousy without stopping to consider much of anything in between.
Knightley is as good as usual, but her dominance of the frame takes away screen time from several superb actors in supporting roles. While Ralph Fiennes is in fine form as the Duke, both Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana’s mother and Simon McBurney as Charles James Fox are never quite given the juicy scenes they deserve. The audience is left to imagine that the best parts of their conversations with Georgiana happened either just before or just after the scenes that were left in the film.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/27/08.