New Releases Web subhead: The Duchess and Mister Foe. 3v

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New Releases

The Duchess
Directed by Saul Dibb
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Opens Fri., Sept. 26

It seems that an 18th-century ancestor of Princess Diana suffered in a similarly gilded cage as her descendant, adored by the public and ignored by her foppish boor of a husband, at least according to this lumbering costume drama from director Saul Dibb.

Keira Knightley stars as poor Georgiana Spencer, pawned off by her conniving mom (Charlotte Rampling, exuding the usual menace) at far too tender an age to Ralph Fiennes' dreaded Duke of Devonshire. "G," as he unaffectionately calls her, is expected to produce a male heir, and any paltry concerns like conversation are beside the point.

A much beloved fashonista and belle of the Whig Party, Georgiana's sprawling social life can't compensate for her domestic drudgery, especially after the duke installs his mistress (Hayley Atwell) in a bedroom down the hall. But a star-crossed dalliance with Dominic Cooper's hopeful young politician--he makes a lot of speeches about "change," amusingly enough--teaches our anguished duchess a hard lesson about double standards.

Relatively painless, at least by the standards of awards-season chum, The Duchess piles on the historical parallels between Georgiana's plight and that of Diana Spencer to a point where you finally can't help but envision it all ending with a paparazzi pursuit of her horse-drawn carriage. The saving grace here is Fiennes' persnickety performance. His mouth turned down in a contemptuous sneer, he plays the duke not as a villain, but as a simple man suffering from such magnificently selfish tunnel vision that he's constantly surprised (not to mention annoyed) by how much damage he's doing.

Keira Knightley's job is to agonize photogenically, working her now-patented quivering underbite while Georgiana is presumably supposed to stand in for the plight of every neglected woman. She's far too modern and plucky to be believable in the role. Sure, Knightley's passable in the early reels, but as the years wear on she doesn't age convincingly. It's impossible to fathom this petulant kid as a devoted mother, and you can't help wondering what someone like Kate Winslet might have done with the part.

Lovingly shot on large opulent sets with the genre's typical fetishistic attention to costume details and gravity-defying wig work, The Duchess feels like a straight-faced version of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. And what's the point of that?

Mister Foe
Directed by David Mackenzie
Reviewed by Matt Prigge
Opens Fri., Sept. 26

When exactly did David Mackenzie grow a sense of humor? The Scottish director's last two films--the Ewan McGregor bonkathon Young Adam and the Natasha Richardson, er, bonkathon Asylum--were humorless, glum and pretentious portraits of antiheroes with self-destructive streaks ripped straight from a Writing 101 rip of Albert Camus.

His latest, Mister Foe--awkwardly renamed from its original moniker Hallam Foe after distributors realized few Yanks had any clue Hallam was a common Scottish first name--concludes the director's jokingly named "sex trilogy," but it shares few qualities with its predecessors, and even boasts an upbeat, trendy soundtrack. Mackenzie's been such a miserable filmmaker that if Mister Foe is his sellout, then here's to whoring artistic integrity.

The increasingly great Jamie Bell (once upon a time Billy Elliot) plays a rich voyeur weirdo who heads from the country to big bad Edinburgh. There he finds a hot young thang (Sophia Myles) who looks like his dead mom, and he promptly begins stalking her, first by getting a job with her employer, then by spying on her through a skylight as she gets it on with a married boyfriend.

If this were Mackenzie of only three years ago, Bell's condition would remain oblique and the whole thing would end in murder. But no: Bell's grieving for his dear dead mom, all while Dad (Ciar�n Hinds) has married a gold digger (Claire Forlani) who Bell suspects had a hand in his mother's mysterious drowning.

Mister Foe finds its director reluctant to indulge his usual shtick--so much so he even severely downplays the whole icky Oedipal/Vertigo aspect, a decision that makes the film a good deal less interesting than it initially seems. Strip Mackenzie of his artistic pretense and there's not much there, frankly, and even Bell's freakier psychological ticks--the least odd being his predilection for smearing makeup on his face and donning a skunk-skin cap--eventually get played for heartstring tugs.

What nearly saves Mister Foe is its singularly fiendish sense of humor, much of which is attributable to the presence of Bell, who somehow remains likable without once dialing down the intensity or making cheap pleas for audience empathy. "I like weird guys," Myles, wide-eyed, informs Bell upon first discovering his idiosyncrasies. If only the film that bears his name were a bit less hesitant about being weird itself.

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