Paramount // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 23rd, 2008
There were three people in her marriage.
"I love you...in the way I understand love."
The year is 1773, and young Georgiana (Keira Knightly, Atonement) is simply enjoying life. She is a typical teenage girl with typical teenage dreams, and she is excited when her mother (Charlotte Rampling, Farewell, My Lovely) declares that Georgiana will be married to the powerful Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler's List). Suddenly, Georgiana has a concern: "Does he love me, mother? We've only met on two different occasions." "Why of course he loves you, dear."
Sadly, the Duke does not love Georgiana and is only interested in her for breeding purposes. He feels that his primary responsibility in life is to sire an heir, and Georgiana seems to be capable of helping him carry out such a task. The wedding night of the Duke and Duchess is an unromantic and somewhat painful affair. Before long, the Duchess is pregnant. Much to the Duke's dismay, she produces a daughter. The relationship between the two grows increasingly tense, but Georgiana doesn't let her private problems get in the way of her public success. She quickly becomes the fashion darling of England, and is greeted with warm astonishment almost everywhere she goes. Having this level of status gives her some measure of comfort, but what she really desires is love.
If the Duke is not absolutely determined to make Georgiana completely miserable, his actions are certainly accomplishing just that. He frequently cheats on her with a wide variety of women, and eventually even beds Georgiana's closest friend Bess (Hayley Atwell). Absolutely enraged, the Duchess demands that Bess be sent away permanently. The Duke shakes his head, quietly stating that Bess will be living with them from now on. Angry, bitter, and desperate to be with a man who truly loves her, the Duchess allows herself to fall into the arms of rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Can their relationship possibly survive the restrictions and conventions of society, and will Georgiana ever find true happiness?
Calling all Anglophiles! The Duchess is here, and it deserves your attention. A reasonably straightforward biopic of a fascinating figure in English history, the film succeeds on every level that you would expect a film of this sort to succeed on. The costume design is absolutely impeccable, as it absolutely must be. After all, this is the story of the woman who defined fashion in England during her day. Do not mistake Georgiana for simply being a high-society diva, however. She was a compelling, complex, interesting woman whose life was full of contradictions. She was perhaps the most-loved woman of her era, and yet she couldn't find an ounce of love in her own marriage. She was a politically active liberal who campaigned for the likes of Charles Fox and Charles Grey, and yet she accepted the idea that women were inferior to men in society.
As played by Keira Knightly, the Duchess of Devonshire becomes a memorable and deeply sympathetic cinematic character. Some critics have complained that Knightly is spending too much time in costume dramas these days, but why shouldn't she? Have you seen her work in Pride and Prejudice and Atonement? English period dramas like The Duchess typically require actors who can convey hidden depths with their behavior. In the upper class, keeping up a particular image was terribly important, and expressing one's true feelings without risking one's status required a great deal of subtlety. Knightly is gifted at finding the delicate feelings beneath the elegant shell, and it's hard to imagine many other actresses playing this role so well. During one scene at a dinner table, the Duke leaves in the middle of a speech by a politician at the table. The politician turns to the Duchess and asks, "Did the length of the speech get the better of the Duke?" "No," the Duchess replies. "He said that he absolutely adored the speech, and he hopes that next time it will be even longer."
Knightly is matched by a very nuanced turn from the reliable Ralph Fiennes. When one looks at the behavior of the Duke, there is no denying that the man was nothing short of an absolute monster. In the hands of the wrong actor, he could have become a one-note creep, but Fiennes refuses to play the role with that much simplicity. The Duke is a monster, but he heads into horrible actions with surprising timidity. If the Duchess is closing her eyes and trying to find some way to withstand the horror of being raped by the Duke, then the Duke is closing his eyes and trying to withstand the "necessary evil" of raping his wife. He's not trying to be a villain, and he is uncomfortable with the idea of being forced to be a part of uncomfortable situations, but the Duke wants what he wants. He's going to have everything he feels he should have, no matter how unpleasant he must act in order to get it. It is impossible to sympathize with such a character, but Fiennes helps us understand him.
If you are a fan of Jane Austen novels (and films based on those novels), do not be deceived by this film's similar look and feel. There may be a good deal of romance in this story, but this portrait of Georgiana's life is most assuredly not romantic. The Duchess is a tale of heartbreak and repression; the story of a woman being pushed into a corner and stuck there by the conventions of society. It's not merely a matter of a lack of courage to break free. By the time that Georgiana works up the desire to find true love in the arms of Charles Grey, she has several young children. If she runs away with Grey, her husband declares that she will never see her children again. In those days, the courts ruled in favor of the husband in cases of separation, so Georgiana's personal desires are now at odds with her responsibilities as a mother. It's a heartbreaking predicament: follow the man of your dreams and abandon the children that need you, or go back to your family and suffer under the tyrannical rule of a cruel husband.
I really wish I had seen this film in hi-def, because it's absolutely gorgeous visually. The film was shot in a variety of lavish real-life locations, and it looks a good deal more expensive than it actually was. The cinematography of Gyula Pados is a genuine pleasure to look at, and this DVD transfer captures it with reasonable success. The image is vibrant and well-balanced, with accurate flesh tones and fairly deep blacks (though a couple of darker scenes seem a little obscured). The low-key audio track gets the job done, with emphasis being placed on Rachel Portman's gentle score. Extras are somewhat limited here. There's a 22-minute making of featurette, a 7-minute peek at letters written by Georgiana, and a brief piece on costume design. A commentary would have been nice, but alas, these lightweight EPK-style pieces are all we have to work with.
Though I feel everything involving the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire is handled very well, a couple of the key supporting characters in the film aren't handled with as much success. The relationship between Georgiana and Bess is a particularly tricky one, and I'm not sure that the filmmakers find a way to make it work. The two were best friends until Bess began sleeping with Georgiana's husband. After a period of bitterness, the two became best friends again (though Bess was still sleeping with the Duke), and Bess eventually married the Duke with Georgiana's blessing when the Duchess died. It's a very odd situation, and the film doesn't help us understand it. Additionally, Dominic Cooper is a bit on the dull side as future P.M. Charles Grey. He's sweet, romantic, and will undoubtedly make the ladies in the audience swoon a bit, but there's really nothing to him. He's a flat character without much personality, and he is only an appealing alternative due to the fact that the Duke is a jerk.
Though some viewers may have difficulty adjusting to the strange mannerisms and mindsets of 18th-Century English society, The Duchess is a period piece that should appeal to most viewers. Excellent performances from the leads, strong writing, noteworthy technical merits and a fascinating historical period combine to serve up a very satisfying 109 minutes of drama. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13