Movie Review – The Duchess (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

the-duchess

The Duchess is a tear-jerker about the glamorous, pitiable life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the Princess Di of the 18th century.

If the life of Georgiana (played by Keira Knightley) as depicted in the film is not historically accurate, then the filmmakers have consciously adapted the facts of her life to evoke comparisons to her modern counterpart. The most potent similarity is the disparity between an external life of privilege, rank, and wealth and an internal life of suffering and sadness. The Duchess’s story also demonstrates convincingly that the appropriation of the private lives of the rich and powerful for public consumption is not a 20th century phenomenon.

Georgiana’s mother and the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) arranged a marriage between Georgiana and the much older peer when she was 17. She accepted the arrangement willingly in the expectation she was entering into a marriage. In fact, she was being acquired as a breeding animal to produce a male heir.

The alliance catapulted Georgiana to the top echelon of England’s aristocracy. It gave her an important social position, access to almost unimaginable wealth, and considerable influence with the Whigs, the political party that was the recipient of the Duke’s largesse. She was a fashion icon and a national celebrity.

In stark contrast, Georgiana’s private life was characterized by emotional deprivation and suffering. Her relationship with the Duke was a travesty of marriage defined by his continual, flagrant infidelity, casual mental cruelty, and occasional physical abuse. The filmmakers are careful to emphasize that society is complicit in creating Georgiana’s painful situation. The traditional sexual double standard coupled to inequitable property, divorce, and child custody laws trap her in the circumscribed role of a dutiful, faithful wife.

Georgiana’s plight generates a ready sympathy and the film is very effective within the self-imposed constraints of a woman’s picture. The film’s, and the genre’s, greatest strength is that it keeps its female subject firmly at the story’s center. Georgiana is a meaty role and Knightley makes the most of it in her riveting, dramatic, and finely shaded performance. In The Duchess, as is often true of the genre, the downside of this unwavering focus is that the heroine is the only fully defined characterization. The quality of Fiennes’s performance matches Knightley’s, but the strength of his acting masks the fact that the Duke, in common with the other supporting characters, is underdeveloped and his thoughts largely opaque.

The film’s more serious limitation is the way it molds Georgiana’s mind to fit neatly within the conventions of womanly suffering. Despite her active engagement with the country’s political and social powerbrokers, the film portrays Georgiana as a homebody at heart. The determining events in her life are domestic in nature: a bad marriage; the threatened loss of her children; renunciation of her lover; betrayal by a friend. To borrow a phrase, the Duchess’s life is too conventional to be entirely true.

Most notably, the film makes much of Georgiana’s hobnobbing with political bigwigs and even influencing elections, yet refuses to delve beneath the surface of her motives and activities. Was politics her avocation or her escape? What did she think of the Whig platform? Did she try to influence the party’s direction or only to advance its cause? Did she enjoy being a singular woman in a male domain, or did she try to involve other women in political pursuits? These are some of the questions that I wish the film had, if not answered, at least acknowledged in its portrait of this intriguing woman.

The Duchess is a well-made and affecting film. It earns its tears. It might have been a great film if it had probed more deeply into the Duchess’s inner life.

3 stars

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