The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

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The Last Station


The Last Station

James McAvoy displays obvious beard envy.

(2008) Period Drama (Sony Classics) Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, John Sessions, Patrick Kennedy, Tomas Spencer, Christian Gaul, Wolfgang Hantsch, David Masterson. Directed by Michael Hoffman

Although he has a reputation for writing voluminous novels full of Russian names and places that are enough to cause the heads of most casual readers to spin, Count Leo Tolstoy was in reality one of the world’s greatest writers. His ideas continue to influence world culture to this day, and in his day he was considered to be a living saint – an idea he apparently didn’t dissuade.

Tolstoy (Plummer) is an old man living on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and although he has espoused pacifism and celibacy his whole life (the latter of which he obviously failed to adhere to with 13 children), his life is turmoil and warfare. His wife, the Countess Sofya (Mirren) fully expects the copyrights of his work (and the accompanying residual payments) to go to his family.

However, Tolstoy’s trusted aide Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) has other ideas. He believes that the rights should revert to the Russian people, which would be in line with Tolstoy’s political and social agenda – which to be honest Chertkov is entirely correct. This of course puts him at odds with the Countess who is a formidable woman and opponent in every respect.

Chertkov hires a young man, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), to ostensibly act as Tolstoy’s personal secretary, but is in fact there to spy on Sofya which makes Bulgakov, a Tolstoyan to the core, a little bit uncomfortable. He winds up caught in the middle of the power struggle which the elderly writer seems to be blissfully unaware of.

Bulgakov takes solace in the arms of Masha (Condon), a woman who works on the drab but pastoral Tolstoyan commune neighboring the Count’s estate. Tolstoy’s days are growing numbered and his legacy is at stake. Bulgakov finds himself sympathizing with both sides – but which one ultimately should the Count’s decision fall to?

This is a fictionalized version of the last year of Tolstoy’s life. Based on a novel by Jay Parini, a number of the events portrayed here did take place as written, but quite  a bit of artistic license takes place as well. We see Tolstoy not as he actually was, but as we wish he was.

That’s largely due to the tremendous performances by Plummer and Mirren. Mirren gives us a multi-layered performance that portrays Sofya as alternately loving, shrewish, arch, witty, charming, devious and obstinate. To my mind, this is not only the equal of Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance in The Queen but in many ways it’s superior. She was rightly nominated for another statuette for it, although she would lose to Sandra Bullock as Best Actress.

Plummer was also nominated for his performance as Tolstoy (losing to Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor), an honor richly deserved. Plummer seems to be having a great deal of fun with his role. Rather than playing Tolstoy as a ponderous, weighty pontificator who bore the burden of his greatness in his shoulders (which is the temptation), he instead humanizes the man who would go on to influence Gandhi and the peace movement of the 1960s, making him warm and grandfatherly. He dithers over the disposition of his material things, somewhat embarrassed over his own wealth and station.

McAvoy is a fine actor who has yet to really move beyond being a merely competent leading man and becoming a star; he certainly has role models to look to here if he is to move forward. He does a solid job once again, making Bulgakov likable but not memorable. Giamatti is more crotchety and is the center of the story’s conflict, a role he inhabits well. He knows how to make a character unlikable without making him grating, a very fine line that he pulls off here.

The Russia Tolstoy inhabits is changing, moving inexorably from the repressive Tsarist regime to the eventual revolution that would turn it into a communist nation that Tolstoy would have welcomed had he lived long enough to see it – and then rejected as it would become even more repressive than the government it replaced. Even in the idyllic setting of Tolstoy’s beloved home, the sense of oncoming change is ever-present in the film.

There are a lot of grand gestures and thoughts here, few of which are truly realized. We are teased with weighty insights but this film belongs more to the conflict between Sofya and Chertkov. That is the center of the action and perhaps from the standpoint of traditional storytelling that would be the way to go. However, I found the movie worked better when the relationship between Sofya and Tolstoy was at the fore; Bulgakov is more of an observer than a catalyst here, and that makes the character somewhat bland.

To my mind, this is a movie that aims high and doesn’t quite hit the mark completely, something not to be discouraged. The performances of Plummer and Mirren are both well worth seeing, and if the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to their efforts, at least the filmmakers had the sense to showcase the performances of these able actors and that alone should be motivation enough to rent this.

WHY RENT THIS: An opportunity to witness two glorious performances that are as different as night and day. A look into the life of a great man who was fully aware he was great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are actual historical figures here, you get the sense they are here to perform certain roles that may or may not jive with their place in history. The script hints at grand thoughts but never really realizes them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality that contains some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The descendants of the family still live near Yasnaya Polyana and the movie was made with their support and approval. One of the count’s descendants, Anastasia Tolstoy, an Oxford graduate, shows up near the end of the film as a mourner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel, as well as a segment from the AFI tribute to Christopher Plummer in which he takes questions from the audience regarding his brilliant career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.6M on an $18M production budget; the movie lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bone Collector

The Prestige


The Prestige

Hugh Jackman and Andy Serkis examine a field of light.

(Touchstone) Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansen, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Roger Rees, Samantha Mahurin, Jim Piddock, Mark Ryan, Jamie Harris, Christopher Neame, Ron Perkins, Ricky Jay.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.

A magic trick is much like a three-act play, with the initial explanatory portion (the pledge), the turn – what you might call the plot complication – and the payoff, which is called in the business the prestige. As wily old Cutter (Caine) says, “It isn’t enough to make something disappear. You have to make it come back.”

Magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) are both learning the craft of magic from a veteran stage performer in London in the late 19th century. Robert is a married man, whose passion for Sarah (Hall) is matched only for his ambition to be in the limelight. Sarah is also part of the act, but she must often act as a sort of mediator between her husband and Borden, who have become fierce rivals. When one of the most dangerous tricks in the act goes terribly wrong, a distraught Robert blames Alfred for it.

Time passes and Alfred, a great natural magician with little talent for showmanship, is beginning to develop a reputation and a following. He meets Julia (Perabo) and eventually marries her. They have a daughter named Jess (Mahurin) and as Alfred gets more and more popular, he buys his bride a home. Then, one terrible night, Alfred is performing his bullet catch, his most dangerous stunt. A mysterious stranger comes out of the crowd to assist with the trick, and things go awry for Alfred, resulting in the loss of two fingers on his left hand. The mysterious stranger is revealed to be Angier.

As Bordens’ fortune sours, so Angier’s soars. With the assistance of Cutter, he puts together a show that has the potential to be the toast of London. Angier is an adequate magician but a tremendous showman, charismatic and handsome. With pretty assistant Olivia (Johansen) urging him on, he is on the brink of success – when a mysterious stranger who looks a lot like Borden causes another trick to go wrong, maiming an audience member in the process. Angier’s show is closed by the disgruntled theater owner.

When Borden returns with an astonishing trick that neither Angier nor Cutter can figure out, Angier does his best to replicate it, but his attempts are exposed to a bemused audience by Borden. Humiliated and furious, Angier leaves London to find out the secret of the trick. He sends Olivia to work for Borden as a spy and she manages to retrieve Borden’s diary. Scorned and feeling used, she leaves Angier for Borden, creating an untenable situation for Borden’s wife.

Cracking the diary’s cipher, Angier travels to America to meet with the great Nicola Tesla (Bowie) and his acerbic assistant Alley (Serkis) to try to replicate the device that he built for Borden. Despite Tesla’s warnings, Angier persists. Finally, Tesla reluctantly relents. From that moment on, the confrontation between the two rival magicians is inevitable and there is no doubt that tragedy is certain.

As much as being a movie about magic, this movie is about obsession and the cost it takes on those who are gripped by it. Director Nolan keeps things taut and simple. Although there is a bit of a twist that arrives near the end (which just keeps on twisting, don’t you know), the plot is elegant in its simplicity. As with his previous classic Memento, Nolan’s writing is so flawless that no event is wasted, and everything eventually makes sense in its own internal logic.

Bale and Jackman both deliver performances that keep you interested in their characters. Neither character is written as a hero nor a villain, but with shades of both in their personality, leaning towards the villain more in both men. It is hard to root for either one of the magicians as they do some Very Bad Things to each other, but the story is so interesting and the acting so powerful that you just want to see where the story takes them.

Inevitably, this will be compared to The Illusionist which was released at nearly the same time and features a similar turn-of-the-century European backdrop and a magician as a central character. With a larger budget, Nolan is more reliant on special effects than the other, which is a bit of a throwback in feel and in direction to silent movies. The Prestige is all modern, a big ole Hollywood blockbuster, make no mistake.

What makes the movie work is that the characters are so single minded on their quest that they have forgotten what their quest truly was. In the end, they are just flailing away at each other, motivated by hatred, greed and the baser parts of man’s nature. It is inevitable that men who fall from grace so completely will come to a bad end. It is not unlike watching an auto race and waiting for that crash. You know its coming; you just don’t know when it will come and how bad it will be when it gets there.

WHY RENT THIS: Nolan ratchets up the tension and Bale and Jackman do some fine movie star-style work. A fascinating look at the inner workings of a magician’s trade.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to root for either of the leads, who behave very badly towards one another. The McGuffin of Tesla’s machine stretches the line of credibility a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing imagery and violence, but definitely fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Christian Bale played DC Comics’ Batman; Hugh Jackman played Marvel Comics Wolverine; in the Amalgam series in which characters from both universes were merged, Wolverine and Batman were mixed to create the single character Dark Claw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Nine