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Costumes and historical bigwigs
Keira, Dominic, Hayley and Saul bring The Duchess back to life
On the red carpet: Keira, Saul and Dominic hold court at the London premiere, 3 Sep 08
|B Y R I C H C L I N E
It's a bit disingenuous for those promoting The Duchess to play down the film's similarities with the life of Princess Diana, who is a descendant of characters in this film. Not to mention the fact that the film's tagline is: There were three people in her marriage.
Keira Knightley has deflected the connection, saying, "I was 11 when Diana died, so I really don't know what the actual story was. I knew when I was going into it that she was a distant relation, but that's as far as my knowledge goes. I was very much making a film about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. I think that she's an interesting enough person to warrant a film completely about her, without comparison."
Even so, this contemporary link is what sets the film apart from other British period dramas, adding a layer of emotional resonance that brings the story recognisably to life. As director-cowriter Saul Dibb says, "You'd be naive to say that no-one's aware of the connection. Amanda Foreman's book never referenced Diana specifically, but every review of that book drew those parallels. But it was never once something that we talked about as a reference for us or anything that might influence the actors or the approach. The parallels are straightforward and obvious and out in the public domain, and have been so."
Hayley Atwell, who plays the other woman in the film, says, "There was also a book called Dearest Bess, a novel based on the letters between Bess and Georgiana. It provided more of an insight into Bess' background, and it made her intentions for Georgiana and the Duke a little clearer, so I knew what to do with the script."
So was there anything for Dominic Cooper to read to prepare for his role as Earl Grey, the other man in Georgiana's life? "There was a wealth of material on the back of a Twinings tea box, which is where I did my research," he says, quickly adding, "and some other stuff as well. He was a fantastic person to investigate; I don't think I was aware even that he went on to become Prime Minister. But he was a fantastic person to discover and realise how passionate and enthusiastic a young politician he was. And how he was able to put everything on the line for the love of his life."
Keira read Foreman's book, but also found herself inspired by the locations. "Just being in those enormous houses - particularly for me - it helped with the sense of isolation that I thought Georgiana was going through. And the sheer scale of them and the beauty of them is quite astounding."
"I always think when you enter those buildings it's the feeling of what those walls have seen and what those buildings have been through," says Dominic. "It's always very difficult - you go and do your research and you look at these wonderful 18th century paintings and you can understand that these people existed, but it's always hard to truly, truly believe that and not make them too stilted. Those buildings in a way give you what a costume does: after you've done all the research and all the work on the scenes, you then suddenly enter all these incredible spaces and it's like when you've finally talked your costume through and you slip that on and you put the shoes on - you really feel the part. It's an incredible sensation."
Hayley agrees, adding that she felt "there was a big difference for me, who visits these places as a tourist, to actually spend time thinking what it was like if this was my home. You would have this extraordinary sense of entitlement and status, and the concept of having to relax into these large rooms and feel like it was your own, but not be particularly cosy at the same time."
And it went beyond the buildings and costumes. "We had an etiquette person come in as well," says Keira, who has done her share of costume dramas. "I think it's always important when you're doing films like this to know the parameters that you're working in, to know the rules. Then you can choose to break them. But as long as the knowledge is there in the first place, you can choose what you take and what you don't."
And Keira had another advantage: spending time with the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. "They were great," she says. "The Duchess actually took me into one of the rooms and showed me some of Georgiana's things, which I could actually look through, which was fantastic. She was a huge gambling addict, so it was amazing to see her debt books, in her own hand, and some of the letters they had there as well. But you have to let your own imagination go as well. It's great to be able to read all these things, their actual letters - you can kind of mull it all over and have it in the back of your head - but fundamentally you have to stick to the script. It is a dramatisation, it isn't a documentary."
And of course there were those costumes. "They weren't particular comfortable," Keira says. "Very simply, if you wear a corset you can't catch your breath, so any emotions are much more heightened because you can't calm them down. So they were very helpful in the portrayal of the character for me. Although it took about two and a half hours to put them on. We had to be sewn in to some of them, which they would have been - they would have been sewn in and cut out."
"Which is very difficult in a moment of passion, to undo at rapid pace, without looking ridiculous," interjects Dominic. "Sorry."
"I can't add anything after that," says Keira.
Hayley chimes in: "Well, going to the toilet was quite difficult."
"Actually, I didn't fit into the toilet in the trailer," adds Keira, "which was quite difficult in itself. Why do I want to share that publicly? Or the car, with the wigs."
"They were very heavy as well," says Hayley, "with so many layers to them and so much detail. We had to find different gestures and postures for standing and sitting that we could sustain for long periods of time without hurting ourselves. But it was absolutely extraordinary to think that's how they dressed every single day, with that kind of preparation. And even at the end of the day, because the wigs themselves were so intricate and beautiful, you couldn't rip them off, as I often wanted to do, and get out of it all. You had to just unstick yourself and unstitch yourself. So it took almost as long to get out as get in."
Which is probably why Keira kept her clothes on during the sex scene. "Actually, I think it's much sexier not seeing," she says, "as a personal preference."
"I wasn't told that," protests Dominic. "I've never been told that."
"You were told to get your kit off."
"And put the nappy on and get on with it."
"I'm so sorry," she says. "During the sex scene I was luckily fully clothed and he got to wear a skin-coloured nappy. Normally these scenes are never the best things. You are meant to be very supportive of each other, but he did come out in a skin-coloured nappy, and I just completely lost it. Saul actually did come over and say, 'Come on, just pull yourself together, this is serious work.' And he's standing there in a skin-coloured nappy!"
"Wait a minute," Dominic says. "You chose what I would wear - either a pink sock or the little nappy. And then it fell off!"
"I couldn't stop laughing."
THANKS TO SHEENA AT THINKJAM
© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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