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Outmoded behaviour

Two period dramas rich in detail, but not so good at characterisation

<strong>The Duchess (12A)</

The fall of the house of Merchant/Ivory occurred in the mid-1990s, when the producer-director duo, prized as ambassadors of British costume drama, slid from favour and the country turned instead to Richard Curtis for its fix of toffs in tails. In recent years, the heritage industry has been given a shot in the arm by Jane Austen adaptations. But too many film-makers still slip up by assuming either that the characters in a period drama know they are living in the past (even though it wasn't the past at the time), or that our ancestors existed merely to foreshadow and grapple with the problems that now torment us, but do so while wearing frock coats and button boots.

The Duchess falls prey to the latter temptation. It begins in 1774 with 17-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) marrying the sour Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), whose response to the proposed union ("So be it") suggests that he's not the Milk Tray type (or, if he is, that he's going to keep the Hazelnut Whirl for himself). He wants an heir, not a wife, and in this respect his bride confounds him, producing daughters as he looks on aghast, like a man who has purchased a sausage machine that keeps cranking out apple puffs.

Both parties find their attentions straying - Georgiana takes an interest in Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a young Whig, and the duke drifts towards any woman with a pulse, including Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), whom his wife has invited to live with them. The screenplay, adapted from Amanda Foreman's biography and developed by several writers over eight years, cannot resist piling on the contemporary parallels, from the emphasis on media intrusion to the overlaps with another infamous ménage à trois. When Georgiana discovers her husband's infidelity, she does not actually announce that there are three people in their marriage, but she may as well. The constant modern resonances make you brace yourself for the arrival, screen left, of Sir Martin of Bashir.

The director, Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy, The Line of Beauty), is capable of sounding comic or tragic notes with a single edit, but he shows a loss of nerve by soaking the film in Rachel Portman's score, or cramming in endless close-ups. These decisions betray a concern that the audience won't respond to characters who tend to be either victims or cold fish, or both.

Ralph Fiennes's perfectly calibrated portrait of sorrowful sadism gives the lie to this assumption. Knightley and Cooper are entrusted with the film's emotional centre, but what torment they convey is undermined by their unlived-in, E4-ready faces. Conversely, a single encounter between Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling (as Georgiana's desiccated mother) offers grit and gristle enough for a whole other, tougher film.

Rampling also turns up briefly in Angel, in which Romola Garai plays Angel Deverell, an egotistical Edwardian novelist whose spectacular rise is matched only by her disdain for most of humanity. Her publisher (Sam Neill) kowtows to her demands, a tormented painter (Michael Fassbender) falls for her, and his sister (Lucy Russell) happily volunteers to be her doormat, while Angel herself shelters from reality in the garish pink bubble of her dreadful romantic fiction.

The picture is not just a costume drama - it's an ongoing commentary on the entire genre, with a seam of exaggerated artificiality (ropey back-projection, fake rainbows) that marks it out as a film about cinema in the same vein, if not the same league, as Far from Heaven. The director François Ozon, a long-time connoisseur of camp, has created a film that is richly textured on every level except the human one. Despite Garai's donkey-work, we realise at the end of the film that we are no nearer to liking or comprehending Angel's behaviour than we were when it started.

But there is no denying that her monstrousness has a gleeful naughtiness. "You've lost your leg but you're not dead!" she reminds her lover tactlessly, when he returns from the trenches depressed and one limb down. If someone could get Garai's Angel and Fiennes's Duke of Devonshire in the same picture, the result would be a monster movie to rival King Kong v Godzilla.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.