Saturday, January 3, 2009

DVDebuts: THE DUCHESS and THE WOMEN -- Starting out the New Year with the gals

And why not? The story of a beautiful young English woman who became very wealthy (and even more famous) around the time of the America Revolution, followed by a remake of Mr. Cukor's venerable 30s tale populated by a cast considerably less starry than that of the original: How bad can it be? Thankfully, not as terrible as many critics would have you believe -- but not all that good, either.

Saul Dibb's THE DUCHESS gets high marks for the sheer jaw-dropping costumes (Michael O'Connor), production design (Michael Carlin), set decoration (Rebecca Alleway), art decoration (Karen Wakefield) and cinematography (Gyula Pados) and especially its locations. For those many who love the above accoutrements, the film is a very easy watch. Its story, too, is fascinating: how a young woman, full of life, beauty and intelligence, adapts to her quiet tyrant of a husband, with the pair evolving into a threesome (and more). The problem is that, no matter how combustible and shocking the story may be, Dibb (as director and co-writer with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen) just can't manage to bring it to believable life. The movie rarely seems remotely "as it was," despite a cast that includes Kiera Knightley (just OK) and Ralph Fiennes and Hayley Atwell (both considerably more than that). However involving the movie manages to make things (and off and on, it's quite so) by the end it's clear that, though you might be disposed to discover more about these characters on your own (via Amanda Foreman's book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire), the filmmakers have clearly lost the race.

THE WOMEN invites easy ridicule early on -- for dialog that rarely rises about the OK (and sometimes simply sinks) and constant references to make-overs/cosmetic surgery that only call more attention to the somewhat mask-like faces of two of its stars, Meg Ryan and Annette Bening, not to mention most of the others. Yet the story of a wronged wife and how she handles her straying hubby still manages to generate some laughs and a bit of pleasant melodrama. Writer/director Diane English's updating, including the fact that this version, as did the original, allows no males on the scene (well, nearly none: there's a little surprise here), is handled with some skill, and occasionally a zinger strikes its mark (mostly from the old Clare Boothe Luce play, however). While Ryan and Bening are perfectly OK (and Debra Messing quite fine in the Joan Blondell role), it's the supporting cast that provides the most fun: Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Fisher, Bette Midler and Debi Mazar. If you'll just set your sites a little lower, gals -- and the guys you may be draging along for the viewing (though most of these will likely be gay) -- you'll finish the film in a much less disappointed state.

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