The Duchess


Directed by: Saul Dibb
Written by:Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney
Released: October 2, 2008
Grade: B+

I enjoy “period piece” movies.  I speak of films which capture the essence of another era.  They have wonderful sets, beautiful costumes and intricate storylines.  The English know how to do it best.  If I mention the words “love”, “tragedy” and “royalty”, then I could be describing any number of English period piece films.  Examples over the last year include Atonement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Given the similar themes which run through these stories, you might ask yourself whether it’s all a little repetitive.  The answer to that question will vary depending on your tastes.  I have some friends who will be yawning throughout the two hour duration.  Others will soak it up and appreciate the small nuances that make this film slightly different from the others.

The Duchess is set in the 18th Century and recounts the life of Georgiana Spencer (played by Keira Knightley).  At the age of 16, Georgiana married into royalty.  His name was William Cavendish (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his title was the Duke of Devonshire.  They lived together in the lavish Devonshire House and had a team of servants at their continual disposal.

It may sound like a dream existence but as you’d probably guess, it was anything but.  Georgiana would soon learn that the marriage was one of convenience.  The pair seldom spoke and their love life was non-existent.  All that was required of the Duchess was to keep up appearances with the adoring public and to provide a male heir.  The later requirement proved difficult and after the birth of two daughters, the Duke became increasingly frustrated.

Trapped in a loveless marriage and knowing that her husband was having numerous affairs, Georgiana found comfort in the arms of an old childhood friend.  His name was Charles Grey (Cooper) and he was a young, ambitious politician trying to make his mark.  They would have an affair of their own but keeping it a secret from the jealous Duke would not be an easy task.

I’ve mixed feelings about The Duchess.  I like the story and the fact that certain relationships aren’t over simplified.  Despite what I’ve said in my brief plot overview, it’s not all “black and white”.  The Duke can be intolerable at times but there are scenes when he opens up and reveals a softer side.  You may feel sympathetic towards Georgiana but there are moments which will leave you questioning her sensibility.  Take for example her strange friendship with one of the Duke’s mistresses, Bess Foster (Atwell).

The biggest weakness of the film for me is that doesn’t seem to cover enough material.  Having done more research on the internet, there’s a lot more to Georgiana than that which was depicted in the movie.  Too much time is spent watching her drinking and socialising.  I wanted to know more about her relationship with Charles Grey and their political aspirations.

There have already been a few raves about Keira Knightley’s performance and she’s certainly a chance at a second Academy Award nomination (having been nominated in 2006 for Pride & Prejudice).  It is a terrific performance from Knightley but not to be overlooked is Ralph Fiennes who is equally as good.  The Duchess is worth a look for their performances alone.