Period dramas have taken an interesting tack lately. Where movies taking place in centuries past used to be marketed primarily as acting showcases for the leading cast they’re now usually sold to the audience as analogous to “The Hills”: Full of vacuous, beautiful people all of whose lives revolve around little but sex and clothing. I’m not sure when this shift took place, but they’re not exactly the Oscar bait that they once were, at least for anything beyond Costume Design or some technical category like that.

The latest entry in this genre, and one that’s being marketed along similar lines, is The Duchess. Starring Kiera Knightly, who’s responsible for 87 percent of the period drama output of the last five years, as the Duchess of Windsor Georgina Cavendish. Her character falls out of love with her husband, played by Ralph Fiennes and in love with a dashing young politician in the royal courts.

While the film takes place centuries ago, the message from the filmmakers is that Georgina was that era’s version of someone like Princess Di, celebrity royalty whose unhappy life is only brightened when she finds someone more sensitive and romantic than the partner she’s miserably coupled with. The campaign has actively pushed the idea of her being an “It Girl,” someone so hip it hurt, concerned with clothes, romance and other signs of social status.

The Posters

I really like the one poster that was released for the movie, but that’s based mostly on the color palette that’s used and not so much on the design. That design is pretty cut and dried, just a standard shot of Knightly standing there in her royal finery, surrounded by ladies in waiting and Ralph Fiennes looking on in the background. No one is actually looking at Knightly but seem to be staring off into the middle distance, which makes it look a little odd, but what are you going to do. But it does the job of informing the audience that it’s a period drama and that everyone is decked out in costume, which are the primary selling points that need to be conveyed.

One thing that didn’t get retouched in the poster’s design were Knightly’s breasts. The actress, who has had her cleavage famously enhanced on one-sheets for some of her previous films, reportedly rejected studio suggestions that they give her a digital lift, saying she was happy with the way God made her and that no help was required. I think that’s a testament to how much influence she now has (influence that’s largely due to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s success no doubt) that this sort of thing is now something that’s run past her as opposed to something that’s done without her knowing about it.

The Trailers

The trailer opens with a clear and distinct statement that we’re now watching period film, with lots of shots of carriages and castles and such. We’re then introduced to the title character via a court official intoning just how important this person is. He says things to the assembled persons about how the Duchess is someone of universal conversation and admiration, the height of fashion and the height of society.

We then transition into the love story, with bits about how it’s her job to provide the Duke with a son, her flirtations with the young man, the Duke explaining that he loves her in the only way he knows how and her explaining that her love for the other man is just too great and too pure to battle. We’re finally left with the usual bodice-ripping as the two secret lovers consummate their bantering.

The trailer is more or less exactly what we would expect in support of such a film. It’s all very grand, both in scope and in opulence. But these sorts of films, because they’ve stopped being innovative in terms of story and have instead fallen into a predictable patter, have a hard time generating much excitement. It’s hard to look at this trailer, at least, and figure out how it differs from The Other Boleyn Girl from earlier this year. So it’s hard to figure out how this trailer is convincing the audience to see it on a level other than “It’s just like every other period movie from the last three years or so.

One other trailer was also released that begins with Georgina’s ascent to power as she’s married off to the Duke of Devonshire. In the position as a very public person, she then champions the cause of freedom in England and specifically the dashing young politician at the head of that charge. But she’s then forced by the powers that be to be more submissive to her husband and then finds him in bed with her best friend. The rest of the trailer is her rebelling against those that would keep her down and away from her heart’s desires, either those in the political or the romantic realm.

It could have been worse though. The UK trailer actually includes images of Diana Spenser.

Online

The movie’s official website is nicely laid out in an overly-elegant sort of way that befits the film’s royal focus. Done in tasteful earthtones and such, it’s nice and slick but, because of its niche appeal, unfortunately doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

“Film,” the first section via the top navigation, contains a nice little synopsis under Story that again reinforces the notion of Georgina being the first “It Girl” and which draws the clearest line between here and her descendent Diana Spenser. Cast and Filmmakers have some good write-ups on the talent involved in the movie and Notes takes us into the production a bit, mostly focusing on the casting of each character.

You’ll find trailers, clips and photos under “Media.” Unfortunately the Videos there aren’t labeled so you click on them and only then find out what they are. “Press” contains some of the feature stories on the movie and its talent that have appeared in publications like USA Today, Allure and elsewhere.

The costumes get a section all to their own under “Costumes.” Most of the gowns and other outfits worn in the film get a brief description from the film’s costume designer.

Finally there’s “Discover.” This is a whole dive-in on the the style of Georgina, detailing the innovations she started in the fashions of the day and other societal trends. It’s really meant to hammer home in a very un-subtle manner how much impact she had and what a maven she was in terms of bringing people along in her wake.

Advertising and Cross-Promotion

Period films like this don’t usually have much in the way of cross-promotions for the simple reason that it’s hard to work a digital watch into a story about 14th century sheep farmers. Not impossible, but hard.

But The Duchess did find a promotional partner in Borders who, in conjunction with VisitBritain, ran the “Be a Duchess for a Day” sweepstakes giveaway. The sweepstakes gave away a trip, complete with accomodations, to Great Britain to visit locations related to the movie. Borders agreed to promote the sweepstakes with in-store events – including readings and author signings – as well as online and in its email blasts to members.

High-end fashion retail club HauteLook also launched a contest that tied into the whole “It Girl” theme – in fact that’s exactly what the contest was called. Entrants were eligible to win a $1,000 from the site.

Media and Publicity

Not much here, at least not much that’s unusual or otherwise of note. The major players did the usual rounds of press and there were a handful of stories about the movie’s connection to modern royalty, but that’s about it.

Overall

Looking over the campaign from beginning to end I’m left with the feeling that it expects very little of the audience. It only asks that they let themselves become wrapped up in the idea of following yet another spoiled socialite with a tumultuous romantic life, something that we’re very very used to through the spread of celebrity-focused magazines and their offspring, the celebrity-focused blog.

The film may be interesting enough, but this campaign distills it down to a base element in its attempt to reach those who buy every single one of the “the night Di died” books and who follow TMZ religiously. Each individual component is pretty well constructed, but the constant repetition of the “It Girl” runs the risk of turning off all but the most ardent follows of fashion and lifestyle trends.

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