Monday, September 15, 2008

At last! A film about a duchess or something


When did things start being 'about' other things?

By which I mean, when in everyday speech did things first become routinely described as 'about' things, and just as importantly 'not about' other things, as in "it's not about you, it's about me!" or "this isn't about your career, it's about our marriage"?
My memory puts it not much earlier than 1990 or so, round about the same time that "she said" mutated into "she was, like", the origins of both probably to be found in the weird, quasi-naturalistic scripts of the tv programme Eastenders. If I'm right, it must qualify as the most ubiquitous anachronism in modern film and drama. No period is too distant, no speaker too formal, for things or situations to be about or not about other things or situations.

Now we have Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire doing it. But then, so much currency has been made of this film's parallels with more recent experience that it could be deliberate. Other common anachronisms in which this film likewise indulges most certainly are.

It is obvious that certain everyday aspects of distant history are now so remote from common experience that they have to be ignored by modern dramatists simply so as to make sense to modern viewers. But it is less widely acknowledged, but just as clear, that certain aspects of the contemporary worldview are deemed so essential to our basic sense of ourselves as humans that they must be grafted on to all historical narratives, willingly sacrificing verisimilitude to avoid the hoots of derision that would arise from characters not conforming to them. Shouting at each other in public is an example of this, and all other manifestations of the inability to control emotions, impulses or desires, and keep thoughts and opinions private. Ditto sexual promiscuity, the free granting of sexual access at the initial stages of courtship and swearing.
We know from old television that even as recently as the 1950's the middle classes spoke with the kind of cut glass precision that would now be laughed off the screen even if uttered by, say, a Victorian aristocrat. Joanna Lumley is about as posh as even the poshest historical characters are now allowed to sound.

Something else we insist upon is conformity to contemporary standards of physical attractiveness, not in women so much as men. The oily-quiffed Roman centurions of the Tony Curtis era may strike us as hilarious now, but still we insist on having 18th century characters ripping off their shirts to reveal the kind of absurdly deformed bodies that speak of many a long and narcissistic hour in those temples of Hitlerian perfectionism known euphemistically as 'health clubs', as if the basically sedentary life of the average Whig aristocrat, massive banquets and long days of attending to business interspersed with the occasional mannered dance and stag hunt, could possibly leave him with the pectoral definition of an Action Man doll.
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The Duchess is basically the usual sort of thing. It's not much better or worse than the others, barring one brilliantly directed scene in which Keira Knightley's hair catches alight at a party. But I still lost interest fairly quickly: it's basically the usual story of idiots ruining their own lives and the lives of others in an ever-widening circle of selfishness and emotional incontinence. Such twerps were comparatively rare in the eighteenth century, that greatest of all centuries, but rest assured: if any existed at all, we of the twenty-first will find them and make celebratory movies about the messes they made.
The other thing you have to quickly come to terms with about this film is that it's about Whigs, whom years of reading Johnson have conditioned me to view as essentially comic figures, like Jehovah's Witnesses. No doubt there were greater and lesser ones as there are in all clubs, but still I hear the Doctor snapping impatiently at my magnanimity: "They are vile Whigs, and there's an end on't!"
The earlier parts are interesting, and there are some very good chilly meal scenes, filmed in longshot with the characters at either ends of an absurdly long table. But it all got pretty silly by the end, with the characters yelling at each other in public and staggering about weeping. No doubt the sequence of events is historically accurate, but as to the character motivation: I just don't believe it.

But still, it's Keira. Some say her best performance yet, and quite possibly so. Who cares, really? It's Keira. Let her give any kind of performance she wants, I say. Have her come on reading her lines off sheets of paper; see if I care.

"The quickest way to bond with another woman is to ask them what they think of Keira Knightley."
Straight up: I heard two women saying this as they walked past me in Muswell Hill the other day. I didn't get to hear what the adhesive opinion would inevitably be, but from the tone of voice I'm guessing it's not favourable. The review of this film in The Spectator takes issue with "her distracting quirks, like the pout, and the way her nose pinches in at the end when she is about to cry."
Who does it remind you of? This talk of mannerisms and affectations, coupled paradoxically with boundless fascination in the print media, endless close-ups on screen, and the general ability to open just about any film purely on the strength of what Variety used to call 'the femme ticket'?
It's Bette Davis. Keira is not Bette Davis, of course. But then, who is? So she'll do while we're waiting.