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New releases: <i>The Duchess</i>, etc.

The Duchess

A substantial number of British costume dramas focus on the efforts of a corseted beauty to land a husband to call her own. These tales generally end on a “Happily Ever After” note, but The Duchess, based on a true story (chronicled in Amanda Foreman’s book Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire), begins where the others end and takes matters down a darker route: What if the man you snag turns out to be a complete lout? That’s the central storyline establishing The Duchess, which hands Keira Knightley another plum leading role and serves as yet another example of how Ralph Fiennes’ brooding brand of acting can be successfully employed for all manner of characters. Knightley stars as Georgiana, who, as a teenage girl in 1774, is entered by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) into a marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana soon discovers that the Duke’s only interest in her is that she produce a male heir, so after she gives birth to a couple of girls, he loses complete interest and embarks on an affair with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell). For her part, Georgiana keeps busy in her role as a society trendsetter, but she eventually finds herself contemplating an illicit romance with her longtime acquaintance, rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The Duke commits some monstrous acts during the course of the film, but it’s a credit to the performance by Fiennes as well as Saul Dibb’s direction that the character never emerges as a dull, one-note villain but rather an emotionally stifled man whose Neanderthal brain can’t quite grasp certain aspects of civility and respect. As for Knightley, she’s establishing herself as England’s go-to girl for this sort of period epic: A bright and sunny presence in Pride and Prejudice (albeit used far less effectively in), she’s given greater depths to explore in this picture. She doesn’t disappoint.

Miracle at St. Anna

There’s a scene in Miracle at St. Anna in which a light bulb mysteriously (to the character, not to us) flickers back to life, and the sequence is staged in such a manner that it feels as if director Spike Lee is paying tribute to Federico Fellini, that Italian maestro of both whimsical visions and self-reflective filmmaking. Alas, that moment passes, and it no longer becomes clear exactly what Lee is honoring with this baffling motion picture. Certainly, by orchestrating this screen version of James McBride’s novel (scripted by the author himself), Lee wants to pay tribute to the black soldiers who served this country during World War II. But a more linear narrative might have helped him accomplish that goal. Miracle at St. Anna turns out to be a clusterfuck of good intentions crossed with clunky storytelling, opening and closing with a contemporary (read: 1983) framework that’s supposed to infuse the story with a heady mystery. But it doesn’t take long for viewers to crack the case, meaning that all of this footage could have been excised with no harm, no foul. The flashback portion of the movie finds four African-American soldiers -- pensive 2nd Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke), swaggering Sergeant Cummings (Michael Ealy), sensible Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso) and sweet, simpleminded Private 1st Class Train (Omar Benson Miller) -- stranded in a Tuscan village in Nazi-occupied territory. The soldiers’ white commander (Randy and the Mob’s Walt Goggins, again playing not merely a stereotype of a good ole boy but a stereotype of a stereotype) can’t be counted on for support from his safety zone miles away, so the quartet take it upon themselves to protect the villagers as well as themselves. This in turn leads to underdeveloped storylines involving Italian partisans, supernatural intervention and, worst of all, an ongoing feud between Stamps and Cummings as both men vie for the attention of a shapely villager (Valentina Cervi, trapped in an impossible madonna/whore role). Despite his personal commitment to the material, Lee rarely blesses this picture with his trademark style, an expression of cinematic prowess that enlivens even his clunkiest films. On the contrary, there’s no moviemaking miracle at work here, just a half-baked project that might be Lee’s biggest disappointment to date.

Nights in Rodanthe

Diane Lane and the Tuscan countryside prove to be a more dynamic duo than Diane Lane and the Outer Banks, an assertion that immediately becomes clear when placing Under the Tuscan Sun and Nights in Rodanthe side by side. Neither film, of course, could be accused of basking in originality, but the former at least made the most of its setting and its star, resulting in a winning romantic comedy whose lovestruck spirit rubbed off on audience members eager to lap up its sense of joie de vivre. The coastal-Carolina-shot Rodanthe, on the other hand, starts off well as Tuscan Sun’s more serious-minded cousin, but it eventually sinks under the weight of the shameless plot devices thrust upon it by author Nicholas Sparks and adapters Ann Peacock and John Romano. Lane, teaming with Richard Gere for the third time (following 1984’s The Cotton Club and 2002’s Unfaithful, the latter for which she deservedly earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination), plays Adrienne Willis, who agrees to look after her best friend’s (Viola Davis) beachfront inn at the same time that her philandering husband (Christopher Meloni) is begging her to let him come back. Gere co-stars as Paul Flanner, a doctor brooding over a minor surgery procedure that went tragically wrong. As the only two people stuck at the inn, Adrienne and Paul open up to each other and gradually fall in love. For a while, Nights in Rodanthe works as a mature and even touching drama -- look for a powerful appearance by Scott Glenn as a grieving widow -- but then the melodramatic devices take over.