Saturday, January 17, 2009

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The Women Take It All

My, my, what an evening I had last night. With the majority of me pals out of town and my roommate's girlfriend visiting, I was left to my own devices. So, when I wasn't catching up with The Office or attending mass (that is, watching The Golden Girls), I caught up on some actressing from earlier in the year.

THE DUCHESS not bad at all. I didn't find it corny, or over-the-top, or melodramatic. It did not feel like just another costume drama, and it did not hit me over the head with its themes. No, dear reader, I loved it. I loved the hell out of it. 'Course, I also love Anne of the Thousand Days, but that has more to do with a specific adoration for Richard Burton than a general love for all things involved. Like, say, my love for The Duchess.

It is a biopic of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightley), apparently the first real Fashion Icon. And yes, the film touches on this quite a number of times, and so Michael O'Connor's luscious costume designs are appropriately impressive. But, of course, what it really focuses on is Georgiana's entrapment: marriage to the passionless Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). We also get a look at the fierce political figure she was, joining the campaign of the Whig Party (led by Simon McBurney as Charles Fox) and falling in love with an old friend, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Oh, also, she befriends Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) who ends up sharing her home and husband.

A brief moment of frivolity
And I adored every minute of it. Nothing was ever stated outright, none of that "WE ARE WOMEN WE HAVE NO RIGHTS" clap-trap that many films of this genre fall into. Yes, the film is full of this, but it is never (or, at least, very rarely) said out loud. It is in the Duke's treatment of Georgiana, in Georgiana's pleadings for a life with Gray, in the demands her mother (Charlotte Rampling) makes on her, in the whole idea of her being a political figure. Only once is it mentioned how many sons Bess Foster has, before the Duke takes up with her. And never once is it said that that is the reason, as Georgiana has only borne girls. Rather, the Duke gets a very human moment as we see him play father, when heretofore ignoring his daughters. Nothing is said, we just get to see it all happen.

Which is delightful. It's a very subtle piece with rich, human characters. It is hard to say the Duke is heartless; such restraints that he puts on Georgiana are natural to him, something expected of a husband, especially one of his standing. Besides, he does give her quite a bit of freedom, and if that last line doesn't absolve him, nothing will. Bess is a great friend, a horrid friend, a good mother, an odd wife, a wifely mistress. It's hard to hate her, even if one does disagree with the way she does things. Eh, but Tilda Swinton does it.

Ralph Fiennes: Rather cross, lacking Oscar
And then, of course, there's Keira Knightley, whose performance has been overshadowed by Kate Winslet's odd playacting, Angelina Jolie's unrestrained hysterics, and Meryl Streep's awesome power. But Keira's just great in this, never overplaying the feminist, never forgetting the mother or the lover or the friend. It is a role full of warmth and sadness. The confrontation between a spurned Grey and the emotionally dead Georgiana is haunting. And yes, she gets a shrill moment in the middle when confronting the Duke about his liaisons with Bess, but it is a rare occassion in which she loses it--and indeed, who wouldn't?

So, between the fine acting, subtly crafted screenplay, beautiful costumerie, and Rachel Portman's score, which I need to buy immediately, I gotta recommend The Duchess. It is a full-on, 100-percent, bona-fide great film.

FROZEN RIVER also pretty good. A quiet little movie about motherhood, writer-director Courtney Hunt presents the human tale of trailer-park mom Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a woman who, abandoned by her husband the week before Christmas, desperate to buy a new home for her children, digging behind the couch just to give her sons lunch money, winds up smuggling illegals across the Canadian border. Also presented is the human tale of Mohawk woman Lila Littlefoot (Misty Upham), a woman who, losing her eyesight, residing in a one-room mobile home, estranged from her only son by the machinations of a bitter mother-in-law, gets Ray into smuggling illegals across the Canadian border when she claims the white woman's husband's abandoned car as her own.

I mean, shit. The shit these women deal with is unbelievable. Ray's sons, naturally, miss their daddy, with the eldest (Charlie McDermott as T.J.) constantly butting heads with her, as though she were doing nothing to help the family. (He's got some money-making schemes of his own; it's pretty funny, but also pretty fucked up). Lila, meanwhile, is just doing what she can to provide for her little boy. These aren't women who want the money for themselves, nor are they middle-aged thrill-seekers. It's all for the children, as expressed by a radio show Ray listens to early on in the film. Hunt was reportedly inspired by an article she read detailing the real-life details of these desperate women, adding an extra power to the story.

Do not fuck with her, she will fuck right back (and not the good way)
The race card pulled here never really feels forced, either. Naturally, Ray would expect the Pakistanis to be hiding explosives in their bags. Naturally, Lila would balk at working with a white woman. Naturally, T.J.'s first reaction upon learning his dad's car was on Mohawk territory would be to kick some Indian ass. God, I know people much higher in the class system that would immediately respond this way. The most important element here is rarely spoken out loud (well, except for the aforementioned radio show). Hunt's script is tight without being sparse, full without being long.

1 comment:

V said...

Don't know if I'd be able to watch Frozen River, but I did want to see The Duchess. Al and I finally watched Atonement the other night and I just looooovvvve Keira Knightley.