Movie Review: The Duchess

I was supposed to go and see The Duchess when it came out in 2008, but I never did. It was either because no-one wanted to go see it with me, or because I heard it wasn’t good – can’t remember which, but I think it was a reason along those lines. So now I just suddenly decided to get it from the library, park onto my bed, and finally watch it. “For the dresses,” I told myself.

The fact is, marriage in the 18th century is an interesting business. Men want heirs, women stability and security in life. The time period the movie is located in (Georgiana Spencer married Duke of Devonshire in 1774) is not as familiar to me as the Regency period, but the facts of family life were much the same way forty years later. It was also refreshing not to have to get myself upset over small details.

So in this film the young, newly wed Duchess of Devonshire (Keira Knightly) discovers her marriage isn’t quite what she expected it to be. Her husband the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) sleeps with pretty much whomever he wants, and the wife is merely the means of begetting an heir. Their marriage goes all the more down hill when it looks like Georgiana can’t produce a male child. There are some rather shocking twists, if you tend to slip into the time period like I do, but I’m not going to reveal them here – they won’t be as shocking if you know of them beforehand.

While watching I kept thinking of why people have said the movie isn’t good, and found that it’s actually rather plain to see. It’s silly, if you know anything about history. It’s sort of patronising. It’s too modern, somehow. I don’t doubt that Georgiana really had some rather modern thoughts on gender equality and the status of women in the society, as that kind of people tend to be remembered. However, the way her attitudes and opinions are brought to the screen is childish. She’s gobsmacked when she sees a naked maid run from her husband’s bedchamber; she gasps in disbelief when she finds out her friend’s husband beats her. Granted, she is seventeen, and to do the filmmakers credit she really grows up towards the end, but mostly seems to act like a child.

Although I found the curious marriage and the character of Georgiana to be the most interesting part, I suppose I cannot write about this movie without pointing out that there is a loved one in her life besides her children. The man who has the Duchess’s heart is member of the Whig party and, later in his life, Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Their affair is built from the very beginning and carries on through the movie. It seems very cliché and lukewarm to me, although Grey does make a wonderful plea towards the end of the movie, for which I applaud the screenwriter, the director and Cooper.

As I said, for those who like history, this movie might look very naïve. But, if you can look past the annoying gasps and incredulity at the facts of 18th century life, it is watchable and, to some degree, even enjoyable. And hey, it includes scenes where Ralph Fiennes is awkward! That, I thought, was quite something worth seeing.

And the costumes are beautiful. The film won the Academy Award for both costume design and art direction, so it’s at least visually very nice.

I’m eager to read a biography of the Duchess of Devonshire now, if only to find out whether she was really as coddled as a teenager as the film lets the viewer believe.

The Duchess (2008)

Director: Saul Dibb

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling

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