I really don't have much in the way of exciting snow news. Snowed in! My street was plowed! Darling Inamorato made it up to Ithaca to see the kiddies! I'm going back to my old job, part time! That's pretty much it. Things are quiet at The Cabinet Headquarters this delightful New Year. Did I mention that Inamorato is in Ithaca?
Oh. And I saw a bunch of movies.
Including, The Duchess and Guy Ritchie's (as opposed to Arthur Conan Doyle's) Sherlock Holmes. If you think there's no connection between this elaborately costumed bio pic and the Steampunk flavored action movie, you would be completely and totally wrong. But more on that later.
Let's begin with The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and directed by Saul Dibb. Knightly plays the titular role, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, a legendary and fascinating person who I think deserves better than this film. But I'm likely being too harsh. Knightly is, of course, lovely, and Georgiana was a legendary beauty. But, is it just me, but does the lovely Keira, in spite of the significant portion of her career that she's spent in crinolines and corsets, look mostly like a modern beauty? She has that awful, elegant post-corsetry slouch, and the complete lack of bosom that wasn't really popular in the 18th century (for Knightly's Chanel ad, they painted one on her, digitally, which is just silly). Shame on me, I suppose, for going on about this, but I've been thinking an awful lot about the aesthetics and fashion of female beauty recently, and something about the look of the film seemed off. When I see Knightley in modern dress, I think she's an utter knockout. But she's still terribly young and as she was only 22 or so when she played the legendary Duchess, she lacked heft. I kept thinking a better film would have gone with someone a little older, a little more charismatic. Casting is always so difficult in films that span a considerable number of years in a person's life.
The story starts when William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (wonderfully played by Ralph Feinnes) proposes to the lovely, 16 year old Lady Georgiana Spencer with all the romance one expects from a telecom merger. As in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (Georgiana and Antoinette were good friends), this film amply demonstrates that being a Princess is a tough gig. One's most important job is to produce an heir, something completely and utterly out of one's control. The film paints a vivid picture of the Cavendish's mostly disastrous marriage, plagued with mutual dislike and mutual infidelities - including a decades long ménage à troi in which the Cavendishes lived with Georgiana's best friend, the Duke carrying on a sexual relationship (and fathering children with) both. She herself had a child by the 2nd Earl Grey (of tea fame and subsequent Whig Prime Minister). Most of the recent interest in Georgiana (particularly in the UK) is because of the marked similarities between Georgiana and her great-great-great (etc.) niece, Princess Diana. Which really doesn't mean that much as the British nobility are more inbred than any backwoods enclave in Kentucky (viva la revolution - a sentiment with which, incidentally, Georgiana agreed).
What seemed somewhat lacking was (unsurprisingly) the politics. The Cavendishes belong to the long, odd tradition of fabulously wealthy Liberals. Georgiana spent much of her time campaigning for Whig politicians and causes - Prime Ministers Fox and Grey, American Independence, emancipation of slaves and fair work laws. None of this is particularly delved into - or even explained in the film. The fabulously wealthy part of this equation cannot be over-emphasized - the Cavendishes owned endless property: estates, mines, factories. Or, rather, the Duke owned all this. The Duchess was essentially a pauper, as married women were not permitted to own property. Neither did they have any parental rights to their children. Nor did they have any rights to their own bodies, as their husbands were permitted to beat or use their wives in any way they chose. The Duke is painted as an intellectually dull man, intimidated by his wife's brilliance, who responds to displeasure with brutality. Feinnes is truly wonderful. So often terrible people are portrayed in films as completely one note, which is rarely the case.
But the film itself is decidedly mediocre, and the problem lies with the director. It mostly has the feel of a staid BBC production, and considering the Cavendishes's lifestyle rivaled the Kings of France in scope and expense, it looked a little cheap. Georgiana was a fashion icon in her day, and lived a profligate life of glamorous clothes (some of which she designed herself), ill considered affairs, scandal, gambling and drinking to excess , all of which were leavened by as active a political career as a woman of her time was allowed. I couldn't but help to think of Sofia Coppola's previously mentioned Marie Antoinette, and though Coppola's budget was nearly double that of Dibb's: her creativity trumped his by a factor of ten. The Duchess lacked any sort of visual panache, or sense of decadence. It's such a fascinating story, and Georgiana Cavendish who was anything but dull, deserves a far more memorable movie.
What is it about modern big budget studio fare that makes them evaporate from one's memory almost immediately? The Sherlock Holmes of Guy Ritchie's (the ex-Mr. Madonna) movie is nothing at all like Conan Doyle's creation, or like the Basil Rathbone films of the 30s and 40s. Robert Downey Jr. plays him mostly as a chatty action hero, which is fine, but sort of disappointing and a little dull. Characters lose their interest if they are made lots more like other movie characters. I mean, how boring. The movie was entertaining enough (I guess). Downey is one of the best actors we have and is always a pleasure to watch, but he didn't have as much to play here as one would wish. I was gratified to find at the denouement, that what appeared throughout the film to be an adventure story was, in fact, a mystery. But there were far too many fights and explosions and Rachel McAdams (who I adore) felt a little under utilized.
The visuals were fairly impressive and well thought out. The film looked not unlike a Steampunk-y graphic novel. They only suffered from having recently seen From Hell in which The Hughes Brother's palette was far more to my liking. It's beginning to become a little bit of a pet peeve of mine (though it's nowhere near as dire as the plague of teal and orange which really must stop) when everything from the Victorian era is desaturated and made slightly sepia toned, with everyone dressed in various shades of brown. We have this image of Victoriana mostly being in this very narrow palette because of the lack of color photography, but that is completely incorrect. Before the advent of electricity, lighting was low so people favored brighter colors. No one was Amish, and only widows wore black (there is lots of interesting literature on the Victorian era's Mourning Industrial Complex, which is in many was similar to our current day Wedding one). It's so easy to keep one's finger on the desaturate button and just call it a day.
The film ends with the set up for a sequel, and the name Professor Moriarty is dropped. Fiction is filled with brilliant Master Criminals, but the sad (or happy, depending how one looks at it) fact is, in real life most criminals are idiots. George Clooney has that great little speech in Out of Sight about how most bank robbers are fucking morons, and he's right. Being a criminal is mostly a last resort sort of career, and rarely works out for the best, so Conan Doyle's remarkable creation, the brilliant Professor Moriarty couldn't possible be based on a real person, could he? In fact, he is. According to some, he is based (at least partly) on Adam Worth, a 19th century American master criminal.
Worth is a fascinating character and really deserves his own blog post - scratch that, he deserves his own series of movies. Hello, Hollywood: what is wrong with you? I first read about him in Ben Macintyre's terrific biography, The Napoleon of Crime. One of his most celebrated capers was his theft of Thomas Gainsborough's famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (above). The painting, missing for decades, had recently been found, and was being displayed and aggressively marketed by the gallery that owned it under (supposedly) great security. Worth waltzed in one dark night and took it. But he never sold it. His confederates were furious and wanted their cut. But Worth kept the painting and traveled all over the world with it (from London to South Africa to New York) for nearly 20 years. The real life Moriarty had a post mortem soft spot for the glamorous Duchess that lasted decades. The world is a curious place. We deserve movies that are far less dull than the ones being offered to us.