REVIEW: The Duchess [2008]

“Freedom in moderation”

Keira Knightley’s period drama for the year 2008 is a well-crafted one, but lacking in anything new and exciting. The Duchess is your run-of-the-mill tale of unrequited love amidst the artifice of a marriage of utility. It all begins with a gathering of teenagers, playing their games in the yard while the adults talk inside, planning the futures for their children behind closed doors. When Georgiana’s mother tells her how she will be the next Duchess of Devonshire, you are almost shocked at her reaction. So happy and excited that a man could love her after only two meetings, she cannot wait to leave and start her new life … seemingly forgetting all about that boy in the yard for whom she obviously has feelings for. This is a time of regimented rules, of lives orchestrated for success and not allowed to spontaneously evolve. A decision that I don’t think she could have said no to anyways just set up her entire life’s journey, one full of happiness, wealth, and eventual heartbreak.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into the film. I had heard the stuff about how Georgiana was the Empress of Fashion and thought maybe this would tell about her designing sense while also her life. Maybe it was going to be a romance or a tale of deception and intrigue, a behind the scenes look at royalty. Instead of any of those, The Duchess ends up really being just a bio-pic disguised as an historical drama. At times it seems like some interest is about to show face as we learn early on about Her Grace’s penchant for politics and desire for all people to be free. It actually seems like we’re about to watch her fight for women’s rights and equality, but instead the topic is glossed over and she becomes the face of the Whig Party, not a vocal piece to the puzzle. Even the fashion aspect is thrown to the side. The Duke mentions it once and she is introduced at some sort of fashion show later on, but after a funny speech, it is back to the pomp and circumstance of the royal way of life.

Whether the film succeeds or not doesn’t detract from the fact that the attention to detail is quite nice. Director Saul Dibb has gotten a crew to recreate the time period, actors to inhabit their roles, and an all-around authentic look. I love the moments looking through the windows towards the outside. The glass is fogged and warped as it was back then and the compositions frame the characters of importance with the clear portions, while the others are distorted in the imperfections. Pacing-wise, the film never really drags. It is all composed nicely, spanning the 6-8 years from marriage to the bearing of an heir. The film itself is not boring; it is the story that becomes mediocre and obvious while the cast still intrigues throughout it. Once the relationships and affairs all become public knowledge to the audience, it is just a matter of what will happen next? Unfortunately, that is a question that didn’t interest me as much as what could have been looking at different aspects of Georgiana’s life, rather than just the marriage itself.

Knightley must be given credit for pulling off another turn in a corset, long dress, and numerous wigs. Almost appearing to be a glutton for punishment, she just seems to flock to this type of role. But with good reason, she is solid throughout, showing her youthful exuberance as well as her stubborn disgust at the injustices put upon a woman in that time period. Much smarter than one would expect from a girl sent off to become a Duchess for the sole purpose of conceiving a male heir, Georgiana is a fascinating woman. Knightley has a wonderful timing when conversing with the men, especially the playwright Richard Sheridan and Whig leader Charles Fox, (Simon McBurney in a fun and interesting part), adding some humor and showing how it is everyone loves her. That is except her husband, as the joke goes.

That husband is played by the great Ralph Fiennes in a role that I am not used to seeing him in. The Duke of Devonshire is very much an automaton going through life fulfilling his duties. Unless with his beloved dogs, Fiennes gives off a cold dead persona, breathing as little life into the part as possible—and that is a compliment, not an insult. He is the kind of guy that just walks away from the group when he is done or bored, he doesn’t have to explain himself. Maybe without manners, it is the intimate scenes of him trying to show emotion that become memorable. His awkward attempts at consoling or showing affection are so hard to watch that they are perfect. The Duke is not one to show his feelings, but when he knows he should, he tries. Fiennes makes this man sympathetic somehow, showing the audience that beneath the harshness lays a man trapped into a life he cannot leave. He looks out the window at his children and wonders at how free they are. Here is a man in charge of everyone, but alone living for the title. He has an image to uphold and unfortunately that means he must be strict and decisive when it comes to events that could tarnish his reputation and image, events that the Duchess throws his way often.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the love triangles are interesting to see fleshed out with the wonderful supporting cast, it’s just that I wish there was more weight to the story with those moments only complementing. Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey, the boy from Georgiana’s childhood, adds a layer with the inevitable affair, and the character of Bess Foster, played by Hayley Atwell, is perhaps the most interesting of them all. At first the Duchess’ best friend, she becomes her husband’s mistress and lover as well, creating a dynamic unused to in films like this. The three live together, all for their own needs. One for his title and heir, one for the power to have her children returned to her, and the other, trapped in her life now, to have some semblance of meaning. It’s definitely the most off-the-wall aspect of the story, but unfortunately not enough to make The Duchess any more special than the next period drama to come, or the last before it.

The Duchess 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

[1] Hayley Atwell as “Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Foster” and Keira Knightley as “Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire” star in THE DUCHESS, a Paramount Vantage release. Copyright: (c) 2008 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Peter Mountain
[2] Ralph Fiennes as “Duke of Devonshire” stars in THE DUCHESS, a Paramount Vantage release. Copyright: (c) 2008 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Peter Mountain


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