The Duchess Review
Hmm. Not quite sure what’s going on. This is the second film in which Keira Knightley, not my favourite actress, has proved to be more than a chin. Pride and Prejudice, though good, was not enough to convince; Atonement demonstrated that Joe Wright knew how to get a performance out of her, and now The Duchess, very much her film, shows that she actually can act and what’s more can carry a picture.
Knightley is Georgiana, an ancestor of Diana Spencer, and the film does draw inevitable parallels, though Georgiana is perhaps more interesting than her doe-eyed descendant. A member of the Spencer family, she is married off at the age of seventeen to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana assumes that he has fallen in love with her, and approaches the marriage with romantic expectations; the Duke, however, is a cold fish, only interested in the production of an heir. He continues to have sex with the servants, and pays little attention to his child bride, who flings herself into her role as a society hostess. As a leading member of the Whig party, Devonshire frequently entertains politicians including Charles James Fox (McBurney), and well as more raffish members of society such as the playwright Sheridan (Mcardle), who take to Georgiana immediately. She soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to a girl, to her husband’s disappointment.
Georgiana continues to produce female offspring, and goes to Bath to take the waters, a popular and fashionable cure at the time. She meets a young woman, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Atwell), and become fast friends. Bess is estranged from her husband, who has her children and won’t allow her to see them. Georgiana invites Bess to stay with them, and is at first delighted to have company, until she realizes that her husband has taken Bess into his bed. Georgiana is horrified, and tells the Duke that Bess must leave. He refuses; Bess explains that she seduced him in the hope that he will use his influence to get her children back.
In Bath, Georgiana meets an old friend from her youth, Charles Grey (Cooper). They are taken with each other; he has political aspirations and she, as a fashion icon and celebrity, can help him get people’s attention. Inevitably, they begin an affair. Georgiana proposes that she will allow the Duke and Bess to continue their relationship if he will accept her feelings for Grey, but the Duke is outraged; Georgiana has still not produced the longed for heir. Finally she does, but is so miserable that Bess contrives for them to meet, and this time Georgiana can deny her feelings no longer.
The Duchess is a surprise on many levels, apart from Keira’s acting. It is a British period film that feels astonishingly modern in many ways, appalling old-fashioned in others. Its about women, which makes a nice change; it shows how horribly complicated and twisted the feelings between women can become. It’s about how, before divorce without dishonour, men held all the power, and yet at the same time how that didn’t seem to make them happy. Men and women seem equally trapped in their less than agreeable roles, and perhaps the only truly free people were wealthy young widows. Neither celebrity, gorgeous houses, more money than you can imagine nor enormous wigs seem to have made Georgiana happy, and in the end she is forced to sacrifice the little bit of happiness she has found – she must make a hard choice.
I must say again how impressive I found Knightley in this role. Her depiction of motherly love and devotion is utterly convincing and she also looks ravishing in an enormous hat. She is ably supported by a top-notch cast that includes, as well as Fiennes, Atwell and Cooper, Charlotte Rampling as her mother, while Saul Dibb, best known for gritty urban drama Bullet Boy, directs with aplomb.
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