Sunday, September 7, 2008

In Defense of Keira

I have been a bit silent on the blogging front lately. That's mainly because I was busy scurrying around the streets of London's Soho, picking up and delivering tapes, scouring hardware stores for buckets and fire-proof gloves (don't ask), lugging 20kg metal cases filled with walkie-talkie equipment, all on behalf of an Unnamed Film Company which gave me a travelcard and £4 per day lunch money in compensation for 9 hour days during which I barely sat down and felt guilty if I took more than a 15 minute lunch break. Needless to say I packed it in after a couple of days. Good insight into the film industry though - though I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone else.

Anyway, since then, I've done a few nice things too. I went to see the wonderful, if miniature, Courtauld C├ęzannes exhibition at Somerset House. Aside from the well-known Card Players (1892-5), I also enjoyed looking at other gems such as Pot of Primroses and Fruit (c. 1888-90), which reveals C├ęzanne's flair for capturing an overall sense of balance and harmony of shape. It's that awareness of pattern and form which allows him to transform even the most 'simple' or mundane of subjects into something fresh and exciting. Another favourite of mine is Apples, Bottle and Chairback (1904 - 06). The subject matter is exactly that described in the title, but the feelings of warmth and plenty emanated from the canvas, with its soft, reddish tones, abundance of plump, rounded apples and inviting wine bottle and glasses, make it more than a mere still life. For me, it's a painting about conviviality, enjoyment and the wealth of nature.

Incidentally, Somerset House provides one backdrop for The Duchess , which I saw on Friday. The film is set in 18th Century England and focuses on the real life of the Duchess of Devonshire, or Giorgiana for short. During the past week it has also been the subject of many a critic's tirade, from the pages of The Guardian to BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review. I agree that the film is no masterpiece. Yet Dibb - of Bullet Boy fame - has achieved a pleasant level of entertainment whilst providing a delectable feast for the eyes. Certain aspects of the film do seem contrived - do we need so many bedroom scenes, and why are they always followed swiftly by brisk, cold dining sequences? - but then who says it should be totally realist in its approach to history and character. With its short, sharp scenes and sweeping narrative, the film could be a well-crafted play - minus the fantastic location shots of course. For me, this 'staged' feel actually allowed for an interesting contemplation of the 'theatre' that was 18th century society. The scene in which Giorgiana's wig catches fire is particularly successful, bringing the aristocratic protagonist firmly 'down to earth' and cleverly unwrapping the layers of artifice. That particular moment made me feel oddly uneasy - it was almost as if the artifice of the film itself was being exposed, unwittingly allowing Keira Knightley to appear beneath the guise of Giorgiana's elaborate costume. Because of the uneasiness it evoked, I felt it was a particularly successful sequence, summing up the way in which Dibb's film deals with glamorous spectacle versus human emotion. It also exposes his capacity for toying with our fantasies of a sumptuous past whilst undermining these romanticised visions.

I thought that the cast did a fine job, too. Whilst I felt that Hayley Attwell seemed a bit stiff at first, I realised that she actually played her part exceedingly well, capturing the slightly self-conscious, awkward character of Elizabeth. Ralph Fiennes did an excellent parody of English stiff-upper-lip masculinity, the scene in which he engages in baby-talk with his well-groomed hunting dogs from his seat at the dinner table being the comic high point. But - shock, horror - I also thought that Keira Knightley was excellent in the role of Giorgiana. I know that most women wouldn't agree with me - I've noticed that she seems to be an object of hatred amongst many of my contemporaries. I was only in the office of one national broadsheet the other week to be shocked at a tirade of insults bequeathed on the successful British actress. I have to say I feel like a lot of this is down to jealousy. Knightley is attractive and has landed some of the most covetable lead parts in recent British films. She doesn't seem to have an obvious 'weak point' like her counterparts - for instance Kate Winslet, who everybody loves because of her so-called 'normal' physique - ie fluctuating weight and open discussion of diets. Keira on the other hand is very young, slim and probably could get away with being a model if she weren't an actress. She is also very intelligent - listen to her discussing the parallels between cartoonists in 18th Century England and today's paparazzi on last week's Woman's Hour for an example. It's interesting that us Brits have a problem with intelligent women like Keira whilst hungrily purchasing the latest issues of Heat and Now magazines to gorge on gossip-filled columns about bland celebs such as Jordan and Peaches Geldoff. Even Kate Moss seems to be a national heroine whilst all she's famous for is looking good in clothes and hanging with rock stars. Reading The Guardian Weekend's recent interview with Keira Knightley, I smiled to myself when I came across the quotation from another Guardian article cited by Sam Wollaston - "If you want to befriend a woman, ask her the question, 'What do you think of Keira Knightley?' In the resulting torrent of bile and loathing, you will bond." Whilst this ironic observation is amusing, it's also rather sad, I think. Why is it that we British seem so keen on bringing down those of us who are fortunate enough to 'have it all'? - especially if the subject in question is a young woman?
Answers, please...

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