When I met the stars of The Duchess, Keira Knightley, Dominic Cooper and Hayley Atwell were happy to spill about the sex scenes in the film. Another hot topic was the Diana connection. Keira's character, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, is an ancestor of Princess Diana and there are parallels between the women's complicated marriages. The trailer makes the link explicit, but what do the actors and the director, Saul Dibb, think about the parallels? They told me all about it.
Much has been made of the Diana parallels. How aware of them were you, and how conscious were you of communicating them through the film?
SD — Amanda Foreman’s book, which never actually referenced Diana specifically, every review of that book drew those parallels. I think in the making of the film those parallels didn’t bear any relation to what we were doing. We were trying to make a film about people in their own right, and trying to nail their relationships in as true a way as we possibly could to their relationships with each other, and not their external relationships to anybody else.
So 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 straight forward and obvious, and out in the public domain.
Keira, did you feel any parallels between your story and the story of Princess Diana?
KK — I was 11 when Diana died so I really don’t know what the actual story is, so I don’t feel that I can comment on the parallels. I think I was definitely aware of the images. I knew when I was going in to it that she was a distant relation, but actually that’s as far as my knowledge goes.
As Saul said, I was very much making a film about Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, and I think she’s an interesting enough person to warrant a film completely about her and without comparisons.
To find out more about the filmmakers' views in comparison to the marketing, plus the actors thoughts about playing the parts of real people, read more
Saul, the inscription on the poster “there were three people in her marriage” [above] is a very direct reference to Diana, how do you feel about that?
SD — The reality is there’s the filmmakers, which is all of us making the film, and then there’s the marketing of the film afterwards; they’re two different things. We had the freedom to make our film, they have the freedom to market the film. It cost them a lot of money and they want to get as wide as audience in. All they’ve done is made explicit what would have been written about by everybody anyway and in a sense they’ve cut out the middleman and gone directly to it.
It doesn’t represent us and our approach to the film, but for them to make that choice is up to them and if it gets more people in to see the film, which stands on its own, then perhaps they’re right [laughter]. But I don’t think any of us would feel that that is …
KK —It certainly wasn’t a reason for me to make the film anyway.
SD —It’s just a marketing device.
There are many other parallels between them, like the celebrity culture surrounding Georgiana, this woman living her life in the public eye...
SD — There are parallels, but parallels could be drawn with any number of particularly tragic female figures. Marilyn Monroe you could pick on, and you could find lots of parallels. It’s purely because of the ancestral link that I think people are so keen to draw that one.
Did you use physical artifacts to help in your understanding of the characters and their relationships?
SD — The basic facts of their relationships are documented and what actually happens in these private bedrooms and hallways is the stuff of our creative imagining. So what you’re trying to do is get the essence.
KK — I think that’s right. I think fundamentally at some point you have to put the biography away and you have to stick to the script. It is a dramatisation, it isn’t a … democracy? What am I trying to say? [laughter] What are they called? Documentary! Thank you so much.
So you do just have to tell the story that you’re trying to tell. You have to let your own imagination go as well. It’s great to be able to read all these things, to be able to read their actual letters, and 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.
Is there any more pressure to do them justice than a fictional character?
HA — Personally speaking, no, because you’re given a job and your job is to make an interpretation of a character that’s in the script or that has been living, and to work hard enough to feel like you’re doing it justice.
If you’re playing someone that has lived there’s the risk of imitation. Do you focus more on the essence on who that character was as opposed to the physical mannerisms, or what is it ultimately that this particular adaptation of a story, whether it’s fiction or not, is trying to say, and the dynamic between the characters as a story, as opposed to trying to imitate something.
KK — I’d agree.
DC — Yeah, much more terrifying to try to imitate someone who’s actually alive now, that’s more difficult.
SD — There is lots of information but it’s largely incomplete and you have to take with a pinch of salt large amounts of the information that you have for those people. So you just have to trust the performances and the instincts to create the piece of drama that works.
I certainly think the films stands on its own, without the Diana connection, and it was fascinating to hear about the differing angles that the filmmakers and the marketing department have taken. The stars of the film will be in London's Leicester Square tonight for the premiere, and I'll be bringing you all the gossip and photos from that tomorrow. Stay tuned for my review too, and Fab UK's lowdown on the costumes.