How do you make a costume drama set among the English high society of the 1760s without allowing your focus to drift away from the details of human experience to the surface pleasures of hats and frocks and shoes? We only have to think back to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to remember how the reality of that French queen’s marriage gave way to a parade of Manolo Blahniks on screen and Bow Wow Wow on the soundtrack – neither of which, in this writer’s eyes, had the effect of bringing Antoinette’s life any closer to a modern audience. But at least Coppola was having a crack at reinvention: many other period dramas, for film and television, combine wigs and houses with a few bon mots and be done with it.
‘I didn’t have those worries about period films,’ says Saul Dibb, who might not seem the obvious choice to direct The Duchess, a lavish new costume drama set among the beau monde of eighteenth-century England. ‘I wasn’t looking to make a costume drama,’ he admits. ‘It didn’t feel like something I’d naturally gravitate towards.’
The 39-year-old Londoner has made only one other film for cinema. Released in 2004, Bullet Boy was a low-budget, improvised drama about cycles of violence on a housing estate in east London. Before then, he had made a series of documentaries for television that were characterised by the assumed ballsiness of their maker, with confrontational subjects such as porn stars, shoplifters, a radical Islamic preacher and the businessman Nicholas Van Hoogstraten.
The Duchess is a pleasant surprise: a British period film that indulges the beauty of dress, wigs and furnishings while giving equal weight to domestic and emotional realities. His film is an adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, whose marriage to William Cavendish was a struggle against indifference and infidelity. While her marriage goes to pot, Georgiana cultivates a role for herself as political muse and celebrity clothes-horse, friend to both the adoring crowd and notables such as politician Charles Fox and playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
‘This story didn’t feel like it was in the Jane Austen realm, for instance, or the more safe and polite territory that some period dramas can operate in,’ continues Dibb. ‘Maybe that’s because it’s about real events. In many ways, it felt like a feminist tragedy.’
Even before Georgiana, played in the film by Keira Knightley in her most mature performance yet, enrages her husband by failing to produce a male heir, the duke, played with an angry and confused uptightness by Ralph Fiennes, is looking elsewhere for kicks. He treats marriage as no more than a contract, while the youthful, optimistic Georgiana buries concerns that she’s ‘only met him twice’. The couple end up living in the same household as the duke’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster (a superb Hayley Atwell), who, to add insult to injury, is a friend of Georgiana’s. The film suggests that it’s Elizabeth, not her husband, who teaches Georgiana how to find real pleasure from sexual contact. It also suggests that the three would eat breakfast together. There are scenes of balls and theatres but the film’s roots remain in Georgiana’s unhappiness.
‘Those were the things that were attractive,’ Dibb says of his decision to make the film, ‘that it was about the bedrooms and hallways and private spaces that it feels we’re often unfamiliar with in films set 200 years ago. The public spaces are there to establish the social rules and pressure, and to see how Georgiana found a vent for her frustrations in public because she was so crushed in private.’
Some may be surprised that the director of Bullet Boy has made The Duchess but Dibb thinks it’s too easy to overstress the differences between the two. Yes, he was working with a bigger budget. ‘To recreate the world of some of the richest people on the planet at the time, you have to have the locations, the dresses, the number of people for it to be convincing.’ And, yes, this was film-making on a grander scale. ‘That’s very straightforwardly true, that’s the bottom line.’ But, he says, if you think about the themes of both, they’re quite similar. ‘Both films are about young people on the cusp of adulthood trying to find their freedom in a world that’s got everything planned for them.’
It’s worth remembering, too, that in 2006 Dibb directed for television Andrew Davies’s adaptation of the Alan Hollinghurst novel The Line Of Beauty, a Brideshead-style tale of a provincial Oxbridge graduate who moves in to the Notting Hill home of a more flamboyant friend, whose father is a Tory MP at the height of the 1980s. Dibb showed then that he could adeptly portray a rarefied social set and the frameworks of freedom it imposes on its members.
Anyone who’s seen a trailer for The Duchess may have noticed a version that stresses a link between Georgiana and her descendant, Diana, Princess of Wales. ‘History repeats itself,’ screams the promo as images of Diana flash on the screen. The film’s marketing bods are keen that we see something of Prince Charles in the duke and something of Diana in the duchess.
‘In the making of the film we didn’t want to make any parallels whatsoever,’ says Dibb. ‘It didn’t govern the shooting of the film or the performances – and I can guarantee that Diana’s name was never mentioned as a reference. But you’d be naive not to be aware that when Foreman’s book was first published in 1998 the reviews repeatedly mentioned Diana. All that the marketing has done is make that link much more explicit to try to reach out to a wider audience.’
The Duchess previews at Hydra OpenAir Cinema at Madinat Jumeirah, Tuesday November 18. See www.timeouttickets.com