Friday, October 10, 2008

Week of October 10 to October 16

What’s On At The Tropic
by Phil Mann

The Duchess has it all. There’s the house, if you can call it a house when it’s bigger than a grand hotel, overcoming the era’s lack of elevators by splaying its bulk across the countryside. For the Duke of Devonshire, his seat is Chatsworth, a pile that has appeared in the 1986 film Lady Jane and in the WGBH-TV series Jane Eyre, before taking on its true role in this one. Then, there are the costumes. One of the Duchess’ dresses, which had to be made up in triplicate, used forty feet of silk for each one, all hand-decorated with gold lace. And there are the rules of society, with the men so in charge they could lawfully beat their wives… so long as they used a rod smaller than a thumb.

The film is based on a true story. When spirited seventeen-year-old Georgiana Spencer (yes, the same Spencer family that later produced Princess Di) married the Fifth Duke of Devonshire in 1874, she was off to Chatsworth, as well as to the Duke’s eight other abodes in Ireland, London and about. It must have been very comfortable for Keira Knightley playing Georgiana, because she had been to the house before as Elizabeth Bennet, when it stood in for Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. But it wasn’t very pleasant for the real Duchess who found her husband (played by Ralph Fiennes) cold, philandering, and altogether unpleasant. He doesn’t beat her in the movie, though he probably did so in real life. But he uses and abuses, rather than loves, her as he seeks to sire a male heir. Meanwhile he adds a mistress to the household to create a long-term ménage à trois, much against her will. She cannot escape, but she can and does build a life as an icon of fashion, a campaigner in reformist Whig politics, and a devotee of the gambling tables.

The movie is more about her suppression than about the independent role she found. I would have preferred seeing more of the latter. But if British historical drama is your cuppa, The Duchess has it all.

A Secret, this week’s other new film, is also based on a true story. Athletic and handsome Maxime and Tania Grimbert, formerly Jewish Grinbergs, have more than a change of religion in their past. It is told through the eyes of their very non-athletic son François, who copes with his failure to measure-up by inventing a life, until an aunt-like family friend reveals the full truth to him. Just as much as in The Duchess, the settings and the photography recreate for us a time past, wartime and post-war France in this case. The Holocaust plays a role, but not a central one. There are no grand houses or costumes to get in the way of the action. Instead the beautifully realized central characters played by the well-known French singer Patrick Bruel (reminiscent of Yves Montand) and the stunning Cécile De France (Avenue Montaigne, L’Auberge Espanole) carry the film. Nominated for eleven César Awards (French Oscar), A Secret has special meaning for the French who are only a generation or so removed from the actual events. I can’t tell you more, but I can vouch that it is a wonderful, compelling movie for anyone interested in a very real human drama of people struggling to control their passions, while dealing with a life that has not turned out as they wished it.

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