Saul Dibb Directs 18th-Century Biopic of Devonshire Royalty

The Duchess with that moniker in the opulent new film by Saul Dibb is the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, a regal beauty despised by her spouse but adored by the masses—much like her great-great-great-great-great niece, Princess Diana.

The Sept. 19 Paramount Vantage release is easily the most elegantly appointed, richly detailed and all-around ravishing period piece since—well, since the last Keira Knightley film (the Oscar-nominated Atonement). Again, the human dimension is not overwhelmed by the sweep of screen spectacle—thanks to the strong, centering performances of Knightley and, seething with artful rage as the dastardly Duke who done her wrong, Ralph Fiennes.

The 23-year-old Knightley, who seems to have found her film niche in tightly corseted historical dramas (King Arthur, three Pirates of the Caribbean, and her Oscar-nominated outing—itself a feast for the eyes—Pride & Prejudice), here essays a society darling who became one of the major movers-and-shakers of her century.

Alas, that century was the 18th—the late 1700s, when the notion of women’s rights (let alone equality!) was nil if not nonexistent—so Georgiana paid a steep price for her daring and her passions. The Duke in the driver’s seat mows her down in short order when her celebrity starts to eclipse his and when she fails to produce a male heir.

The occasional rape doesn’t help matters, so the Duke converts her best friend into his live-in mistress. Amazingly, he manages a sense of righteous indignation and moral outrage when, out of neglect and abuse, Georgiana strays to the bed of a budding politician (Charles Grey, who would eventually become prime minister), bearing him a child whom the cuckolded Duke cruelly forces her to surrender.

Such treacle and travail, however true, smack more than slightly of the stuff of which silent-movie melodramas are made, and director Dibb was acutely aware that the Duke could, with a shove, turn into a mustache-twirling Oil Can Harry type.

“Yes, I think absolutely there was a danger of that,” he readily admits. “To be honest with you, at the start Ralph was quite reticent about taking a role that he felt could be like a cartoon villain—a two-dimensional, repressed, aristocratic Englishman. He was not interested in portraying him that way, but I think, in less talented hands, that could have happened. We worked together very hard to try and make sure there was always a sense of pathos. We were trying to look at this person, in a way, as a prisoner of the social structure that surrounded him as much as Georgiana.”

In this light, let us not forget the lines which opened Joseph Losey’s 1971 film, The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

Dibb embraces that sentiment. “We have to be careful not to judge these actions by our 21st-century values,” he is quick to caution. “They lived in a very, very different time. Somebody like the Duke was very much a product of his time and embodied the values of his time. In a sense, his villainy—as it were—comes out of his desire to maintain the status quo, not to impose anything of his own kind of sadistic desires.”

The Other Man and The Other Woman completing these overlapping triangles were cast with actors very much on the ascent—Dominic Cooper of Mamma Mia! and The History Boys and Hayley Atwell of Brideshead Revisited and Cassandra’s Dream.

Atwell previously starred for Dibb in a British TV mini-series, The Line of Beauty, which unreeled on a cable channel in this country a couple of years ago, but the remainder of the cast is new to him. “We were just very lucky. It’s always a kind of snowball effect. If you get one really good person, then you can attract other people as well. And these particular people really responded to the script and to the story.

“If you work really hard to get the best actors, you’re going to have a much easier ride when you film—and we worked very hard to get this cast,” he continues. “Keira, in a sense, was more straightforward because I think she saw the value of the role, but, to make it work for Ralph’s schedule, we really bent over backwards. He was doing The Reader for director Stephen Daldry then, and we had to reschedule the film to put Ralph essentially into blocks so he could shoot The Reader in between.”

Dibb found young Cooper especially “great to work with—incredibly enthusiastic, really keen and determined.” And, if the actor seems to be listing a little of late in the modern-day matinee-idol direction, then Gibb has certainly given him a firm push toward that goal with a couple of stunningly sensual scenes with Knightley.

“I think the secret is not to say anything,” he says of directing love scenes. “Other than wanting it to be believable and passionate, I didn’t want The Big Screen Kiss.

“I wanted something that felt more real and urgent. Knowing the kind of stuff I’d done before, I think they’d expect that kind of approach from me anyway. In a way, you can’t do those scenes too many times. It’s uncomfortable for everybody. I wanted to do them as few times as possible—three or four takes, max.”

Charlotte Rampling generates some distant sexual heat from the sidelines as the Duchess’s mother who referees this marital mess. Gibb agrees the sexiness is still there, “but I didn’t say that to her. It was needed, though, actually. What I wanted was to cast somebody who is her mom—with a glimpse of being a similar kind of girl. You’ll know Georgiana’s a chip off the old block, and the old block was actually a really strong, quite scary woman.”

The saga of Georgiana is “not hugely known” in England, according to Dibb—even though she is a direct ancestor of Princess Diana. “It’s known primarily through Amanda Foreman’s book,” which he and Jeffrey Hatcher are credited with adapting.

“Amanda Foreman was a Ph. D history student looking into another aspect of English history, and Georgiana’s name kept popping up. She just got intrigued, abandoned her previous work and really embraced the pursuit of Georgiana’s life.”

Producers Michael Kuhn and Gabrielle Tana got Dibb on The Duchess as a writer first (more accurately, rewriter), promising him a directing shot if the results were good.

“This project had been about ten years in development,” as Dibb recalls. “Two writers had gotten the script up to a certain point, and I was sent that two years ago. It was with the idea that I could make it my own in the process of rewriting it.”

Still, Dibb was a surprising choice to command a $28 million film, given his background. “I think the producers were keen to find someone who wasn’t a usual suspect—who wouldn’t provide the film with anything that felt like other period films.” Hence, inexperience was an asset. Just turned 40, Dibb has spent half his life doing short films and documentaries (like his dad, documentarian Mike Dibb).

His one foray into feature films—Bullet Boy in 2004—won him awards from the Evening Standard and the Emden International Film Festival and nominations from the Dinard British Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards. It bowed to critical cheers at the Toronto Film Festival but only got a DVD release in the U.S.

“It was about two young kids in a housing project in Hackney—what it’s like being young, growing up in a world where guns have become a way of life. The main character is a young man on the cusp of adulthood, trying to find his way, trying to find freedom in a world that has already got his destiny mapped out for him.

“I actually think that it bears a huge resemblance to the story of The Duchess,” Dibb suggests. “If you don’t look at the class and the race and the period, the trajectory of the story is very, very similar, I think. People tend to get bogged down with the concept of it being a period film, and that clouds people’s judgment of it sometimes.”

Dibb’s documentary background proved a particularly felicitous blessing at dealing, in detail, with a bygone era. “I suppose it was an approach of mine, coming from documentaries: I feel it’s very important, when possible, to film in real locations.”

The production availed itself of five or six sprawling estates that dot the rolling green landscape of North England (a.k.a. “Hardy Country,” where John Schlesinger filmed Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd a year before Dibb’s birth). Authenticity aside, these homes shaved millions from the production budget while providing genuine visual splendor. Extremely well-utilized sites include Holkham Hall, Kedleston Hall and Chatsworth House. The latter is one of the most famous country houses in England and the ancestral home of the Duchess of Devonshire.

“If these things are available and you can film in them, they instantly provide you and the actors with a sense of the scale of these people’s lives. Their attitudes and values as well are embedded in the architecture. Keira and Ralph, I think, were really helped by having that kind of atmosphere—of having the real place surround them. Ralph, in particular, really feeds off that kind of thing. For him to be able to stand in the house that is the house he would have lived in—in front of the portrait of the character he is representing—is something that I think he found very helpful.”

Coming from a handheld-camera heritage, Dibb must have felt like the king of an anthill, alive with minions doing his bidding. The production notes list 13 people on makeup, 15 on art direction, 10 on visual effects and 10 more on costumes and wardrobe. “We only had nine weeks to shoot the whole film, which is not a lot of time—especially with the amount of time it takes to put actors through costume changes, so we really did have to strip the script down to bare essentials as well.

“The thing was, we were trying to represent some of the richest people on the planet at the time. They’d have balls for 1,200 people—and while we can’t make that, we still had to have 300 people to look convincing. That’s a huge endeavor right there!”

Dibb can’t guess how many costumes were lavishly dashed together by designer Michael O’Connor. “He turned out 29 for Keira alone. Any scene she’s in, she pretty much has a new costume. From our point of view, that’s what it would have been like at the time. They didn’t wear clothes a second time. They’re always different.”

Dibb saves his highest praise for Gyula Pados, the cinematographer he discovered when he caught a Hungarian film called Fateless. “He came on board very late in the day, and he’s brilliant. I have to say I think he’s one of those hidden gems. If he didn’t work in Hungary most of the time, he would be right at the front of our industry.”

And what—in a film conceived on an epic scale—was the hardest thing for him to pull off? Dibb doesn’t have to think twice: “I always find the much more intimate scenes, where they’re just two people in the room, are far more taxing for me than a scene full of 300 extras. It’s because those are the scenes that have to carry the emotional or dramatic weight of the film. No one is distracted by beautiful costumes or great music. The bare essentials of the drama are right there to scrutinize.”