Tag: Costume drama

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Ryan O’Neal is Barry Lyndon in Kubrick’s brilliantly distant epic

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Redmond Barry), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Michael Hordern (Narrator), Patrick Magee (Chevalier du Balibari), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Marie Kean (Belle Barry), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Murray Melvin (Reverend Samuel Runt), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), André Morell (Lord Wendover), Anthony Sharp (Lord Hallam), Philip Stone (Graham), Arthur O’Sullivan (Captain Feeney)

Kubrick has been criticised as a director more interested in style and the technical tricks of cinema than emotion, and there is perhaps no argument for the prosecution than Barry Lyndon. It now seems to the cineaste’s choice du jour as the greatest Kubrick film (probably partly because it is less well-known). Barry Lyndon however is like an exercise in all Kubrick’s strengths and weaknesses, a film that you can admire at great length while simultaneously caring very little about anything that happens in it.

Based on a William Makepeace Thackeray (although it feels in spirit only), Barry Lyndon tells the story of Irish chancer Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) in the mid eighteenth century. Fleeing Ireland after (he believes) killing an English officer in a duel, Barry goes from the British arm to the Prussian army, to card-sharping the courts of Europe to marrying into the aristocracy, as husband to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). But, however hard he tries, it’s difficult for an Irish chancer to be accepted by the British aristocracy, particularly when he suffers from the vocal hatred of his wife’s son Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). 

Kubrick spent several years carrying out research for an epic biopic of Napoleon (he had Ian Holm lined up for the lead role – Holm read multiple biographies and spent months working on a script with Kubrick). The flop of Waterloo (with a deliciously hammy Rod Steiger as Napoleon) killed off the chances of that film making it to the screen. Never-the-less Kubrick now had a vast archive of research for the period – and how easy it was to shift the focus of this research back a few decades. Thackeray’s novel was his chance to put all this to use – and allow Kubrick to indulge what had become a passion for the style of the era.

Barry Lyndon won four Oscars – and all in the areas where the film deserves unqualified praise. This is a stunningly beautiful piece of work, surely a contender for one of the most strikingly gorgeous films ever made. Ken Adam’s set design utilises a superb range of locations across the UK, dressed to breath-taking effect. The costumes, completely accurate to the period, are exquisitely detailed (Milan Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderland) and lusciously mounted. Leonard Rosenman’s score is a wonderful riff on a range of masterpieces from classical music, including Handel, Bach, Schubert and Mozart.

Most strikingly Kubrick decided to film as much as possible with natural lighting only, rather than the vast array of lighting bought in for most films. This was part of Kubrick’s intention to avoid any sense of the studio to his film – everything was to be shot on location and to help immerse the viewer in the detail of the period. Shots were framed to imitate artists of the period, in particular Hogarth. Evening scenes were shot lit only by candle-light, leading to truly stunning images, simply superbly lit. John Alcott’s photograhy utilised (and I’m serious here) NASA designed cameras used for the moon landings to capture images in such low light. Visually, Barry Lyndon may be one of the most perfect films ever made. It’s wonderful – and any doubts that Kubrick is not a true master of cinema should be dismissed.

But Kubrick’s problem, as always? He’s a technocrat artist who lacks some soul. So much time and energy has been expelled on the visuals and the design – the film took almost a year to shoot – that, while you are constantly almost hypnotised by its sublime imagery, it slowly occurs to you that you couldn’t care less about most of the events that happen in it. For all the film’s great length and beauty, it’s a cold and distant film. Kubrick turns Thackeray’s rogueish comic tale – a picaresque dance – into a chillingly sterile meditation on fate, with Barry transformed from a rogue and chancer into a lifeless, passive figure to whom things happen rather than ever attempting to instigate them. 

Is this Kubrick’s idea of humanity? Perhaps it suits the director who was the great master of intricate design and traps, that he would be tempted to turn this story into one where humans are just another piece of set dressing moved around and manipulated by an unseen force (fate, or rather a director?). The distancing effect is further by super-imposing an all-knowing narrator over the events, who frequently pre-empts what will happen and stresses the powerlessness of men. (On a side note, the book is narrated by Barry as were early screenplay drafts – perhaps the idea of O’Neal’s flat voice narrating so much of the action horrified Kubrick. It’s a definite improvement to get Michael Hordern’s tones talking to us for three hours.)

Perhaps though, the failure to capture any sense of Thackeray’s satirical wit, is a sharp reveal of Kubrick’s own inability to appreciate comedy – without the guiding hand of a Peter Sellers to support him. The problem is exacerbated by Ryan O’Neal in the lead role. Kubrick was ordered to hire one of the top ten box office draws of 1972 in the lead role – alas only O’Neal and Redford were the correct age and sex, and Redford (first choice) could never see himself as an Irishman masquerading as an Englishman. So O’Neal got the job – and the film is a damning indictment of his lack of charisma, flat and dry delivery and inability to bring life and energy to the proceedings (although O’Neal has blamed the editing partly for this, as well as the extended shoot). The film helped put an end to O’Neal’s career as a star (already on the wane) – and he is the film’s greatest weakness, in a role that needed more of the impish charm of Malcolm McDowell (although the lead actor from any of Kubrick’s films would have been superior). O’Neal’s presence turns Barry into a character we care nothing for, in a story already coldly distant.

O’Neal is also not helped by Kubrick’s utilising again his great love of striking British character actors – every role is filled with a recognisable face from 1970s British film and TV, each bringing colour and vibrancy to their (often brief) scenes. From Leonard Rossiter – weasily as you’d expect – as the captain Barry thinks he kills, through Patrick Magee’s ambivalently sinister Chevalier, Marie Kean’s loving mother, Murray Melvin’s obsequious priest, Godfrey Quigley’s matey army officer there is not a weak turn elsewhere in the movie. Leon Vitali brings real depth and energy into the film late on as Barry’s son-in-law and hated rival. Even Marisa Berenson – reduced to a dozen lines at most – makes an emotional impression as a woman trapped into serving the needs of the men in her life.

All these actors however are revolving in a movie that gets stuck and overwhelmed in its own grandeur and beauty. There are many wonderful sequences – with the film bookended by two duelling sequences that explore the strange rules and conventions with this society with a vicious black humour. Kubrick’s points about the oppressive insularity of the establishment – and the amount of forgiveness it has for its own, compared to the instant judgement of the outsider – are generally well-made, but are at times so laced with the director’s own cynical views of humanity in general (an increasingly clear trait in his later work) that they carry little impact. Despite this the film is never less than strangely captivating, even if its very easy to let it drift past you rather than invest in it.

But above all, while the film is stunning and the direction of Kubrick near faultless, the film itself gets so close to a great painting that it becomes something you hang on the wall to admire, but not to invest in. Kubrick couldn’t match his genius with the sort of emotion or wit that the story needed (much as it’s vastly superior to Tom Jones, that film gets closer to the spirit of authors like Thackeray than this ever does). Instead, he creates a coldly sterile world, like a perfect experiment in form and style that totally forgets such trivial elements as character and story. For all the film is full of character and events, you’ll find you care very little about them – and that the brilliance of Kubrick is only a partial consolation for that loss.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Glenn Close and John Malkovich play games of lust and sex in Dangerous Liaisons

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Glenn Close (Marquise Isabelle du Merteuil), John Malkovich (Vicomte Sébastian de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Madame Marie du Tourvel), Uma Thurman (Cécile de Volanges), Swoosie Kurtz (Madame de Volanges), Keanu Reeves (Raphael Danceny), Mildred Natwick (Madame du Rosemonde), Peter Capaldi (Azolan), Valerie Gogan (Julie)

Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Les liaisons Dangereuses had been a stunning success in the West End and on Broadway – so a film adaptation of this lusciously set story of sex was inevitable. Stephen Frears’ film keeps the story grounded in its setting of pre-Revolutionary France, but deliberately encourages a modern looseness, even archness, from its actors that makes it feel grounded and modern.

The Marquise du Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are two French aristocrats who fill their time with seductions and sexual manipulation of other people, while conducting a dance of attraction around each other. Du Mertuil wants revenge against her ex-lover by getting Valmont to seduce the lover’s innocent intended bride Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). But Valmont is more interested in setting himself the challenge of seducing the unimpeachable Madame du Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – du Merteuil so convinced the task will be impossible that she bets him if he seduces du Tourvel, she will sleep with him as well. These games of sexual manipulation develop with disastrous consequences for all involved, as unexpectedly real emotions of love and affection intrude on the heartlessness and contempt.

Frears’ film won three Oscars for its most striking elements: production design, costumes and Hampton’s script. Hampton’s script provides a series of striking scenes and tongue-lashing dialogue for its stars. Meanwhile the film looks marvellous, it’s use of French locations superb in creating the world of decadence that these characters move in, while the costumes are so strikingly, elaborately intricate they practically become characters themselves. The film opens and closes with scenes of dressing and de-dressing: the opening sequence shows Merteuil and Valmont being dressed in their elaborate finery, a sequence uncannily reminiscent of knights being dressed for war, ending with shots of their defiantly cold faces starring down the lens. The film bookends this with the film’s key survivor, brokenly wiping away from their made-up “public face” probably forever. It’s a film that uses the intricacy of the period, to strongly suggest modern, dynamic tones and emotions. 

The film is shot with a series of tight shots, intermixed with the odd long shot, that is designed to bring us in close with the film’s serial seductions and envy-powered clashes. This brings us straight into the middle of the events, giving them an immediacy and suddenness that makes this feel like anything but a traditional costume drama. Seductions have a steamy immediacy, while the growing moments of tension in the relationship between Mertuil and Valmont is similarly bought in close to us, to allow us to see the mix of emotions these two have for each other – both a deeply, unexpressed, love and a strange sense of loathing linked together with a possessive jealousy.

Frears makes marvellous use of mirrors in the film. These reflective surfaces appear in multiple shots and frequently expand the world, mirrors reflecting characters as others discuss them, or forcing into shot (usually between two other characters) the subject of conversations. They reveal (to the viewers) eavesdroppers hiding and, in one striking shot, as Valmont and Mertuil’s latest lover argue she is framed in reflection hanging above them on the wall mirror. There’s a reason why one of the film’s final sequences revolves around the smashing of a mirror in grief. 

The film’s modernism also stems from its use of very modern American actors – apeing the success of Milos Forman’s Amadeus – with everyone using their own accents. Glenn Close is superb as Mertueil, a woman projecting a cold, manipulative authority but does so to suppress and hide her own emotional vulnerability. Mertueil has convinced herself that she is a champion of her sex, but her every action seems to be motivated by finding indiscriminate revenge on all those who have found the sort of happiness she has been denied (or denied herself). Close lets little moments – wonderfully captured by the intimacy of Frears’ camerawork – where moments of micro-emotions and pain flash briefly across her face, only to be wiped away.

Malkovich is an unusual choice as Valmont – and his serpentine swagger and arch mannered style at first feels quite a disconnect with a character renowned as the most successful lover in France. But Malkovich’s eccentricity, his very oddity, in a way makes him believable as a man women would find intriguingly irresistible. Malkovich, while naturally perfect for the coldness of the character, is also highly skilled at expressing the slow, non-continuous growth of conscience and feeling in Valmont, as his feelings for Tourvel dance an uncertain line between manipulation and genuine feeling – and while his confused feelings for Mertuil alternate from possessive devotion to revulsion.

The whole cast respond well to Frears guidance, and his ability to draw relaxed performances from an odd selection of actors. Michelle Pfeiffer is particularly fine in a role that on paper could be very dull – the perfect, kind woman – but which she invest with such a seam of emotional truth and longing for deeper connections, combined with naked emotional honesty that she becomes the most compelling character in the film. Uma Thuman is very good as a naïve young girl, Kurtz and Natwick suitably arch as society bigwigs, Peter Capaldi creepily willing as a manipulative servant and even Keanu Reeves has a certain sweetness about him, even if he is at the height of his “Woah” dudeness.

The film’s principle problem is perhaps the very archness and coldness that makes it affecting. While it’s intriguing and intelligent, it is never perhaps as engaging as it should be and its characters are so jet-black, deceitful and cruel that it becomes hard at points to really invest in this chilling story of unpleasant people using other unpleasant people and manipulating innocent ones. It becomes a film easier to admire, perhaps carrying too much of the freezing chill of imperial French greed and selfishness. Come the denoument for all the skill it is played with the actors, it is hard to feel your emotions invested or your heart moved by any of the fates of the characters. Perhaps, in presenting a heartless world of selfishness and lies, it does its job too well.

The Young Victoria (2009)

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend play the royal couple in the cozy The Young Victoria

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Emily Blunt (Queen Victoria), Rupert Friend (Prince Albert), Paul Bettany (Lord Melbourne), Miranda Richardson (Duchess of Kent), Mark Strong (Sir John Conroy), Jim Broadbent (King William IV), Harriet Walter (Queen Adelaide), Thomas Kretschmann (King Leopold), Jesper Christensen (Baron Stockmar), Jeanette Hain (Baroness Lehzen), Julian Glover (Lord Wellington), Michael Maloney (Sir Robert Peel), Michel Huisman (Prince Ernest), Rachael Stirling (Duchess of Sutherland)

Now ITV’s Victoria exists, it’s a bit strange to go back and watch The Young Victoria. With the love today of long-form drama, and the time it can invest in things, it’s funny to see what the drama took almost 8 hours to do being crammed into an hour and a half here. But saying that, The Young Victoria is still an entertaining, luscious viewing experience which, while it has some strange ideas about certain events, is the sort of relaxing Sunday afternoon viewing that will take you out of yourself.

After the death of William IV (a slightly overripe Jim Broadbent), Victoria (Emily Blunt) is elevated to the throne. Finally able to shed the control of her mother’s (Miranda Richardson) domineering secretary Sir John Conway (Mark Strong), Victoria is determined to steer her own course. But she is surrounded by competing influences, not least from the charming arch-politician Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) dispatches his nephew Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) to England with the express interest of marrying Victoria and controlling her – but Albert and Victoria find themselves as kindred spirits, supporting each other to rule.

The Young Victoria is the epitome of prestige costume dramas. It looks fantastic, the cinematography is ravishing, the production and costume design exquisite. It’s pretty clear what the producers thought would sell the picture abroad. The royal regalia is pushed very much to the fore, and we get some wonderfully sweeping scenes, not least an impressively large-scale coronation. The soundtrack brilliantly riffs on Handel, and Julian Fellowes’ script mixes period regal style with a sweeping feeling of romance between Victoria and Albert.

The film actually does a very good job of repositioning Victoria as a young woman, and gives her a strong quality of self-determination and a desire to be herself in a man’s world. It’s really helped in this by the combination of imperial strength, girlish wilfulness and sharp intelligence Emily Blunt brings to the role. Blunt and the film also aren’t afraid to show that, however much Victoria had guts and determination, she was also quite a headstrong woman not above making emotionally led mistaken decisions. In fact, much of the drama spins out of Victoria learning to try and put these youthful crushes and prejudices aside.

Having said that, it’s interesting that the successful conclusion of the film centres on Victoria accepting that she needs the help of Albert to run the kingdom, and that she needs to remove competing influences for her affection – Melbourne and Lehzen – to focus her affection and loyalty on him. The film frames this as a winning romance and a successful partnership (which it was) – but it’s also vaguely creepy if you think about it. Mind you, since all the affectionate influences on Victoria are implied by the script to be at least partly motivated by self-interest, with the possible exception (eventually) of Albert, it manages to suggest this was for the best.

Albert’s background gets some interesting exploration here. He’s very much presented at first as the tool of Leopold as a means of controlling British politics. But he is far too independent, smart and noble to ever be the means of manipulation. Friend is very good here – his performance is quiet, authoritative but also heartfelt. Fellowes guilds the lily a bit to show his devotion by having Albert shot by a would-be assassin late-on in the film. Historically the assassin’s pistol wasn’t loaded, and Albert didn’t get shot (though Fellowes protests Albert didput himself in front of Victoria and that this intent is what’s important, not whether he was shot or not) but the moment does work – it gives the drama a boost and it’s undeniably moving.

While Albert is presented overwhelmingly sympathetically, interestingly Lord Melbourne gets quite a kicking. Paul Bettany is presented far more as a rival love interest than the sort of father-figure Melbourne was in real life (Bettany is probably 20 years younger than the real Prime Minister). Melbourne is shown as cynical, controlling, manipulative and overwhelmingly motivated by self-interest (a few more pushes and he would virtually become the film’s villain). He’s constantly contrasted negatively with Michael Maloney’s upright, honest Sir Robert Peel (one of my favourite statesmen of the 19th century so at least I’m pleased) – and his relationship with Victoria is one of self-promotion, which seems odd seeing as historically the two of them were so close. 

The film introduces other villains for us to hiss at. Kretschmann and Christensen do a good job as arch political schemers. Our real villain though is Mark Strong, who does a great job of scowling, controlling nastiness as the failed-bully Sir John Conroy. Strong’s performance works so well because he makes it clear that Conroy feels that his “Kensington System” (an attempt to manipulate and cow Princess Victoria into being a submissive puppet) is genuinely in her best interest, and that he genuinely cares for her. His partnership with Miranda Richardson as Victoria’s near-love-struck mother works very well.

The Young Victoriathrows in enough interesting character beats like this for it to really work as an enjoyable afternoon period-drama. With some great performances – Emily Blunt carries the movie brilliantly – and while some of the historical characterisation is a bit off, and other moments feel a little too chocolate box it’s a very entertaining, undemanding view., it’s great fun. The hardcore Victorian costume-drama fans will probably prefer Victoriafor the same story in more depth – but this film does it with great sweep (and doesn’t cram in Victoria’s stupid below-stairs plotlines!).

Belle (2013)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the mixed race daughter making waves in society in Amma Asante’s underwhelming pseudo-historical film Belle

Director: Amma Asante

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido Elizabeth Belle), Tom Wilkinson (William Murray, Lord Mansfield), Sam Reid (John Davinier), Emily Watson (Lady Elizabeth Mansfield), Sarah Gadon (Lady Elizabeth Murray), Miranda Richardson (Lady Ashford), Penelope Wilton (Lady Mary Murray), Tom Felton (James Ashford), James Norton (Oliver Ashford), Matthew Goode (Captain Sir John Lindsay), Alex Jennings (Lord Ashford)

The British film industry produces a constant stream of costume dramas, many covering alarmingly similar ground on the aristocracy or wealthy of the Georgian period onwards. It’s to be commended then that Belle takes a similar plot, but from a radically different direction. Here, a famous real painting of a white and mixed-race pair of ladies becomes the jumping off point for a drama about an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a wealthy family.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of naval captain and a slave in the West Indies. After his death, she his raised by her uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), Earl of Mansfield, and his wife (Emily Watson) to raise her as their own alongside their niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadron). Belle is treated as an equal among the family, but is not allowed to dine with guests or move freely in society. However, Belle has inherited a fortune from her father – unlike Elizabeth – and quickly finds herself a source of interest from the younger sons of the nobility. Meanwhile Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, is asked to rule on the slave ship Zorg case (where slavers threw their slaves overboard in a storm), a case that brings passionate abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid) into Belle’s life and makes her start to re-evaluate society’s attitude to her.

Belle is a formulaic costume drama, given an imaginative twist by placing a black woman at its heart. It explores issues around the imbalanced attitudes of British society at the time (and since), and the hypocrisy and racism that bubbles under the surface of the British gentry. Belle is rejected by all and sundry – until knowledge of her wealth becomes known, at which point many of these objections are choked back to secure her money. The film gets much mileage out of Belle slowly comparing her position first to the black servants around her and then to the slaves who lost their lives on the Zorg.

However, what undermines Belle is that it is a work of fiction – and it feels like it’s hiding it. What we do know about the real Belle (which isn’t much) doesn’t relate at all to what we see in the film. She wasn’t an heiress. She didn’t fall in love with an abolitionist lawyer – Davinier was not the aspiring son of a cleric, but a French steward. Elizabeth probably wasn’t a penniless relative. Mansfield’s credentials as a proto-Abolitionist and reformer were never in doubt – by the time of the Zorg case he had already passed a ruling 10 years earlier that there was no basis for slavery in British law. Belle actually lived in Mansfield’s house until his death as effectively a housekeeper and semi-secretary (the very fate she rejects in the film). The film’s lack of interest in historical fact even affects small details – at one point James Norton’s pleasant but empty Oliver boasts his father has purchased him a commission as a Captain in the Navy, virtually the only institution in Georgian England which promoted solely on merit! (This annoyed me a lot more than it should have.) 

Belle is not a true story by a long stretch – but that doesn’t stop it proclaiming a “what happened next” series of captions at the end. It could have got away with this in a way other non-historical films have, if its story itself was more compelling. But instead Belle offers a merely serviceable story, offering a unique prospective on the aristocracy but largely using it to tell a fairly conventional “love across the social divide” story. Honestly, for large chunks of the film you could replace Belle with any slightly shameful second daughter, and the story would remain largely the same.

Which is a shame because it feels like it wastes something really interesting – and also wastes Mbatha-Raw’s star-making turn. She is excellent – sweet and naïve, but growing in confidence, determination and wisdom, gaining the strength of will to shape her own destiny. The film introduces interesting themes as Belle begins to question the attitudes of her family – do they accept her because they must? Would they be as open to a black stranger? – but these themes don’t quite coalesce into something really solid and coherent. Instead they are trotted out, but we don’t really feel we learn anything.

Similarly, the case of the slave ship Zorg seems rather loosely defined. We don’t get a real sense of public pressure or interest in the case, or really understand the essentials of what the case involved. Instead, it’s used primarily as a tool to question the attitudes of Lord Mansfield, and whether he has the ability to expand his obvious love for Belle into a wider statement of man’s equality. Tom Wilkinson is very good as Mansfield – prickly, but essentially decent and caring under a gruff surface – even if the role can hardly be a challenge for him. But the film doesn’t really manage to make a really compelling argument about what it is trying to say, other than slavery is of course bad.

Elsewhere, the film takes simple shots and shoots fish in the barrel. The Ashton family are introduced to stand in for British society. Lord Ashton is brisk and businesslike and interested only in maintaining the status quo. Lady Ashton – played by Miranda Richardson at her most coldly standoffish – only cares about securing wealth for sons. Of those sons, James Norton gets the most interesting part as the decent but shallow Oliver. Poor Tom Felton though: his character might as well be Draco Malfoy in period costume, all but spitting out ‘Mudblood’ at Belle. None of these performances offer anything different from what we’ve seen before.

That’s part of the problem with Belle – it wastes an interesting idea by slowly turning it into a more conventional story, primarily focused on who is Belle going to marry, rather than the implications of a black woman in a racist society, or the hypocrisy of that society being only willing to accept her when she has money. Despite some good acting – Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson also give tender performances – and a star-turn in the lead, it’s not really that interesting a film. You keep expecting it to burst into life, but it never does: for such a film offering a fresh perspective on history, you don’t feel like you’ve learned anything new about Georgian society at the end of it.

The Duchess (2013)

Keira Knightley in lusciously filmed, but shallow The Duchess

Director: Saul Dibb

Cast: Keira Knightley (Lady Georgiana Devonshire), Ralph Fiennes (Duke of Devonshire), Hayley Atwell (Lady Bess Foster), Charlotte Rampling (Countess Georgina Spencer), Dominic Cooper (Earl Grey), Aidan McArdle (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Simon McBurney (Charles James Fox)

My main memory of The Duchess is seeing the trailer while watching Mamma Mia in the cinema. The first shot was Keira Knightley’s face, met with an overwhelming groan from the female-dominated audience. There is something about Knightley that seems to get people’s goat.  If you’re one of those who struggle to warm to Knightley as a performer, this probably isn’t going to be the film that changes your mind.

In the late 18th century, Lady Georgiana (Keira Knightley) marries the absurdly wealthy, but older and duller, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She wants a meeting of minds. He just wants an heir. The marriage flounders – and gets worse when the Duke in turn starts an affair with Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), Georgiana’s closest friend. As her home-life becomes a menage-a-trois, with the Duke treating both women as wives (with their agreement) she begins to experience deeper feelings for the dashing Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), an ambitious politician.

So, first things first, Keira Knightley. She does a decent job. She’s pretty good. But, rather like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, it feels like her best is a 7/10 performance. She’s dedicated, she’s really striving here – but always feels like someone trying rather than truly natural and unforced. She brings Georgina’s glamour and does a decent work of her bewildered hurt, but she (and the film) don’t communicate her intelligence and political activism, so she never really develops as a character. You can’t really put your finger on her doing anything wrong as such, it’s just a performance where you always see the acting, and never feel the naturalism.

It’s particularly noticeable here as her two supports – Fiennes and Atwell – are such accomplished performers. In many ways, the film would have been improved with Atwell in the lead. As it is, as the third corner of the triangle, she has just the right mix of guilt, warmth and mercenary self-interest. In a terrific low-key performance, Fiennes manages to turn a character the film always wants to push into being a bullying villain into a man who feels alive, real and often understandable if not (whisper it) even rather sympathetic.

The film is desperate to turn Georgiana into a suffering victim, and to push Devonshire into the role of a domestic despot. But in fact, most of Devonshire’s actions are quite forward thinking: he adopts and cares for his bastard daughter (conceived pre-marriage), he saves Bess’ children and cares for them as his own, he condones a quiet affair from his wife, he treats her with the utmost public respect and allows her to spend time with her son by another man (although this is relegated to a caption at the end). The only problem is he clearly doesn’t love her, while he clearly does love Bess. Hardly able to believe he wasn’t as besotted with Georgiana as the film is, the film works overtime to try and turn someone a little dull, with some surprisingly generous views, into a monster.

In order to make it categorical who is “right” and who is “wrong”, the film chucks in a gratuitous marital rape scene that feels so out of character and over-the-top, it actually makes you step out of the film. Did it really happen? There’s no evidence of it, and it flies in the face of virtually every other action the Duke does in the film. It’s probably also in there to further contrast Georgiana’s joyless couplings with the Duke against her passionate rumpy-pumpy with Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey (here re-imagined as a penniless adventurer and radical, rather than the son of an Earl) Like Knightley, Cooper has the glamour and dash for the high-class Mills and Boon plot the film is peddling, but fails to convey Grey’s intellect and political ideals.

The film has deliberate echoes of Princess Diana throughout – the crowded marriage, the glamourous outsider marrying into a great family, the sense that her dashing public image made him look like a dullard. And like much of the public reaction to Charles and Diana in real life, the film can’t compute why Devonshire didn’t love this public idol, overlooking the fact that they shared no interests and had nothing in common. Many of Georgiana’s negative aspects are downplayed to help this – the gambling addiction that left her bankrupt is no more than high spirits here.

Basically this is a film interested in style over substance, aiming to turn a fascinating story about a menage-a-trois into something very straightforward and traditional about a husband who treats his wife badly. Now the style is great – Rachel Portman’s score is brilliant, the photography luscious, the make-up and costumes gorgeous – but the substance often isn’t there. The idea of Georgiana’s celebrity is only briefly touched upon, and her intellect barely at all.

Not content with airbrushing out her less appealing characteristics, even her positive ones are done few favours by this candyfloss depiction of her life – one of the first women to take a prominent role in the British political scene, a published writer of novels and poems, and a famously charismatic social figure, here she is little more than a mannequin on which to hang elaborate period hairstyles and costumes, who talks about being a free-spirited intellectual without doing anything that corresponds with these interests.

It shoves in dramatic events which feel out of step with both the characters and the events to push the film towards being as straightforward as possible. Knightley does a decent job – and Fiennes is extremely good as the Duke – but it settles for being something safe and traditional rather than a really interesting look at the cultural moods of the time, or the complexities of the real people it claims to portray. It shares it’s subjects beauty, but reduces her to blandness.

Howards End (1992)

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins discover marriage is never an easy business

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Helena Bonham Carter (Helen Schlegel), Anthony Hopkins (Henry Wilcox), Vanessa Redgrave (Ruth Wilcox), Emma Thompson (Margaret Schlegel), James Wilby (Charles Wilcox), Samuel West (Leonard Bast), Nicolas Duffett (Jacky Bast), Jemma Redgrave (Evie Wilcox), Susie Lindeman (Dolly Wilcox), Prunella Scales (Aunt Juley), Joseph Bennett (Paul Wilcox), Adrian Ross Magenty (Tibby Schlegel)

From the mid-1980s to the late-1990s, Merchant-Ivory was the by-word for a certain type of film-making: intelligent and sensitive adaptations of books, with fine British actors in wonderful costumes. It was a perfect brand. And it probably reached its peak with this masterful adaptation of EM Foster’s precise, tragi-comic analysis of class in Britain.

Set in Edwardian England, the film focuses on three very different families: the Wilcoxes, grown wealthy off the back of the Empire, who have purchased large chunks of the houses and lands of the former aristocratic elite; the Schlegels, an upper middle-class family of intellectuals; and the Basts, a lower middle class couple trying to improve their lot. Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) befriends Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) in the last few months of her life and, on impulse, leaves Howards End, her beloved family home, to Margaret when she passes away. With the agreement of his children, her husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins) destroys the note, but later falls in love with and marries Margaret. Meanwhile, Margaret’s sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) struggles to help improve the lot of thoughtful, well-read insurance clerk Leonard Bast (Samuel West) – with disastrous results.

The film balances these varying plot lines with great skill. It weaves in both well-judged social commentary and a shrewd and subtle analysis of the way perceptions of morality (and the consequences of people’s actions) alter dramatically depending on the class and sex of the person perpetuating the societal offence. Helped by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s masterful (and Oscar winning) screenplay, Ivory’s direction balances this acute scrutiny with an emotional and deeply involving story, staffed with characters whose dignities and flaws are humanly observed. Ivory and Jhabvala demonstrate a masterful understanding of the way we build stories about our own lives and create the people we want ourselves to be – and how this can be influenced by the results of our actions.

These self-images people create of themselves in the film are invariably more noble than the people they transpire to be. Of all the characters, arguably only Leonard Bast follows up on his intentions and consistently delivers on his word. It’s a tribute to Samuel West’s wonderful performance as Bast, as well as the film’s control, that Bast is both a tragic victim and also at times an almost painfully pathetic character, a striver whose every attempt to improve his lot ends in disaster (the film also sticks to Forster’s darkly comic fate for Bast).

While the Basts constantly pay a heavy price for every action, the Wilcoxes and Schlegels largely avoid paying any price for their mistakes until the end. Indeed, Henry Wilcox seems barely able to understand that his past love affair with a young woman left him with a certain moral responsibility for her fate after he broke the affair off. In a brilliant series of short scenes (with fades to black between each section of the conversation) we see him painfully confess the story to Margaret; the fades perfectly capture the mood of a broken up and difficult emotional moment for both characters.

The film perfectly understands the hypocrisy of the upper classes. Wilcox is a man of complete certainty and off-hand confidence, making sweeping statements with complete authority, who has no empathy with the lower classes: “The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is”, he blithely tells the Schlegels. His son Charles (a smackable James Wilby) is a spoilt and selfish snob with only contempt for anyone lower than him on the social ladder. Helen’s later fall from grace (in its way a manipulation of those dependent on her) is met with a condemnation Wilcox never imagines should never attach to his own actions. The whole film is a brilliant tapestry of these contrasts and flaws.

Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her work here, and she does a wonderful job as the emotional heart and conscience of the film, essentially our eyes into the events of the story. Intelligent and with a deep sense of morality, Margaret is also a woman who is willing to make compromises when she judges there is the need. Her decisions are not always correct or justifiable, but Thompson makes her struggle between her need to do the right thing and her desire to find happiness with her husband constantly understandable. In addition to this, Thompson is a radiant and engaging presence, allowing a character verging at times on being a matronly fusspot to always be someone we care deeply about.

She’s matched by a complex and thoughtful performance by Hopkins as Henry Wilcox. Hopkins has a brilliant understanding of the essential moral emptiness of Henry, based not on any malice or cruelty but on a genuine belief that some rules can be applied differently to him because his position and his own self-image reassure him that he is a good man. One of the film’s main subplots is the journey of Henry to understanding his actions have had consequences – and that these consequences reflect on him. Hopkins handles the growing awareness of this with brilliant sensitivity – his late emotional collapse is a masterclass in low-key, elegant, but deeply moving, acting. It’s also a tribute to the film’s mastery that Wilcox (despite basically being a cold, thoughtless snob) remains a character we relate to, understand and forgive.

Sex bubbles under in this Edwardian world. Henry’s sexual history is a crucial turning point. Helen’s freer attitude to love first brings the Wilcoxes and Schlegels together and then later leads to disastrous consequences with Bast. Tied directly in with the class issues in the film, Charles (James Wilby) is determined later to defend her honour, despite Helen having no wish for him to do so. There is even a hint of sexual feeling in Ruth Wilcox’s sudden friendship with Margaret. Alongside this run themes of the slow and deliberate way relationships develop: Margaret and Henry’s relationship takes the whole course of the film to reach a proper understanding, while Helen (and Helena Bonham Carter is wonderful here as a faintly skittish well meaning do-gooder) and Bast’s friendship shifts and changes throughout the course of the film without either really understanding the other.

Howards End’s complexity is of course in large part due to EM Forster’s original source novel, and his insight as a commentator on Edwardian England and its morals. But to capture so much of the air of the novel in this film, and to bring the story so richly to life, is an enormous tribute to the mastery of Ivory and Jhabvala’s work here and to the excellent work of the cast. The production values are exceptional of course and the film is told with pace, zip and feeling. If there was a high point for the costume drama this (and their follow up picture, The Remains of the Day) was it. Merchant-Ivory would never hit these heights again.