We look upon the 18th Century lifestyle with such romanticism, and envision it as a period of grace and beauty. But as films such as The Duchessremind us, it was also a time of unbridled tyrannical behavior, where women were little more than powdered dolls, whose meaning in life was to be loyal and sexually subservient to their male companions. So much for romance. There are some redeeming characteristics beneath all of those stuffy outfits and out-sized wigs, but that is not the focus of The Duchess. Instead, the film focuses solely on the torturous lifestyle of the obligated wife, and not much more, and what we witness is a story beyond tragedy.
The story is about Georgiana (Keira Knightley), a fun-loving, outspoken young woman, who is married off by her meddling mother (Charlotte Rampling) to the off-putting and less than enthusiastic Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Georgiana is excited about the match-up, and who wouldn’t be? She is now the proud possessor of several large homes, and enormous celebrity. The only catch is that she must provide the Duke a male heir. Other than procreating for the future Duke, Georgiana’s husband takes little interest in her, so she is left with being the fashion icon of her time.
Georgiana pops out two children, both girls. This creates a rift between two people who weren’t altogether friendly to begin with. Even sex between the two is an exercise of extreme discomfort, since the Duke seems unable to express any type of affection for his young Duchess. Meanwhile, Georgiana takes her popular place in society, where she involves herself in politics and makes friends with politicians and artists alike. “It’s like they say in England,” one character professes in the film, “the Duke seems to be the only person in London who is not in love with his wife.”
Troubles brew even further when Georgiana invites Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster to stay with them after her husband has thrown her out. Before long, Bess becomes the Duke’s live-in mistress, causing Georgiana great embarrassment at the breakfast table. Life becomes unbearable for her, and the Duke will not free her. She tries to indulge in her own lover, the politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but isn’t long before the Duke extinguishes that arrangement as well. After all, how embarrassing would it be for the Duke to be without a son and a cuckold? The more Georgiana fights for her own life, the more the Duke handicaps her attempts, and she is forced into a loveless marriage and a joyless household.
The film is a period piece in the most deliberate definition of the phrase. The sets stand large and detailed, the costumes and hairstyles stand unmoving and exquisite, and the score booms through the theater like a live orchestra. No doubt, this is a beautifully made film, and it pays great attention to its own beauty. Its hard to fathom that a world which seemed so perfect, that underneath brewed severe sexism and more marital issues than an episode of Jerry Springer. The film deals greatly with the juxtaposition between the time’s beauty and ugliness, perhaps suggesting a balance.
The main flaw stands within the story, which runs out of gas roughly halfway through. After we have established the Duke’s stance as a monstrous misogynist, we are then forced to watch another forty-five minutes of just how monstrous he can be. The pattern would grow more tiring if it wasn’t spread between graceful filmmaking and wonderful acting, but that said, it creates a film that drags much more than it truly has to. There is no catharsis when this tale is through, just an relenting understanding of how things worked in the world of the malevolent Duke of Devonshire.
Knightley, as Georgiana, once again straps on the corset and cake make-up–it seems to be her genre of choice. Not that it deters her performance, as her portrayal of the extravagant Duchess is just another of many performances that show a maturity as an actress which exceeds her age of 23. Ralph Fiennes, on the other end, takes a different, much darker turn. Earlier in the year, he was deliciously evil in In Bruges, but there is nothing enticing about the character here. Fiennes, a true professional in his craft, orchestrates the Duke with such subdued range and masked anguish, you may even feel for his cause during some moments, but are always convinced of his maliciousness.
Much has been made of the fact that Georgiana is the great-great-great-great grandaunt of Diana, Princess of Wales. Both married fabulously rich men who would go on to have mistresses, both would go on to have lovers of their own, and both were indelible icons to the world while they were alive. I don’t know if I find that much in common between their lives other than those extraneous details, but it is information many people have brought with them into the movie theater. Their biggest difference, obviously, is that Diana was able to escape her loveless, unfeeling life, while Georgiana was forced into the torturous coldness of the Duke. Let’s enjoy the lavish perks we have today, rather than rejoicing in the “romantics” of the past. At least, I’m sure thats how Georgiana would feel.
Directed by Saul Dibb