Film Reviews

THE DUCHESS

By • Sep 20th, 2008 •

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Knightley’s star magic is her ability to express unhappiness as an erotic tonic.

Georgiana (Keira Knightley) Cavendish (the Duchess of Devonshire)’s life story is so decadent you can hardly believe it isn’t a tale of a modern marriage, albeit a very rich and famous one.

Lady Georgiana Spencer is seventeen years old when she is chosen to be the wife of the much older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She has been raised and prepared for this auspicious marriage, since the Duke runs a vast empire.

Like Princess Diana, the Duchess has only one task, one responsibility, and one reason for being chosen for such a privileged life. She must produce a male heir (and will get a huge bonus per her marriage contract). Is that so hard? Let’s face facts, it’s a 50-50 chance for a male baby. But, as King Henry VIII found out, the stress of producing a male heir can diminish a woman’s chances.

Stress throughout pregnancy renders women more likely to give birth to a girl child rather than a boy. A recent study found a link between everyday stress and a baby’s sex. It was found that women who were stressed during pregnancy were five per cent more likely to have girls as compared to those deemed relaxed. Women in Western nations generally give birth to more boys than girls, with 105 boys typically born for every 100 girls. Previous research has shown that the number of boys being born goes down following major political and social upheaval.

In the past, it was the fault of a woman if she gave birth to a female child. Certainly the Duke thought so. However, with his wealth, and the fact that Georgiana was so young and had at least two decades of childbearing years ahead of her, why was he so prickly all the time?

Georgiana does produce two girls and has several stillborns and miscarriages. The Duke is beside himself with grief. With her husband completely uninterested in her, Georgiana finds solace in influencing politics and becoming a fashion icon. With no one to entertain her or keep her company, Georgiana befriends a woman who has left her cheating husband. Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell) Foster’s husband has forbidden her to see their three boys and she is financially destitute.

Georgiana takes Elizabeth in their household. Elizabeth quickly may have seduced Georgiana and then accepts the Duke’s invitation to become his mistress and live permanently with them.

With the Duke being lord and master of all he surveys, Georgiana can do nothing but accept the arrangement. When she finally delivers a male heir, she takes up with a young, penniless politician, Charles Gray (Dominic Cooper). Yet, there is a double standard and the Duke will not permit Georgiana to have a lover herself. Was the Duke faithful to Elizabeth? An endnote suggests he was and that is truly a conundrum. Something about the Duke is clearly missing, or did he just get old and feeble?

The story is fascinating and engaging. Like Princess Diana, Georgiana had the title, the status, and the glorious privilege, but she wanted the love of her husband. He was not capable of giving her what she wanted, and the public’s adoration of her was not a satisfactory substitute. Georgiana was unhappy. The Duke was a pompous nobleman well aware of his shortcomings, but he could not be Georgiana’s companion. And while the Duke was terrified that a public scandal would disgrace his family, the ever-present servants heard and saw everything.

The casting is perfect. Fiennes can only play this type of character. He’s severe, cold, and distant. How did he ever become a movie star? The role of the Duke suits him, since he is clearly not someone, in real life, whom his friends would call in the middle of the night while composing their suicide note.

Knightley’s star magic is her ability to express unhappiness as an erotic tonic. She doesn’t play “sad”; she is able to convey the unhappiness that allows you to forgive her beauty and not consider her a spoiled brat. She has learned how to carry herself as an aristocrat yet is able to allow her emotionalism to come through behind the regal bearing.

Of course, the life set forth at the Duke’s mansion, and the decadence of the British nobility, is very seductive and pleasing to the eye. The director, Saul Dibb, has downplayed the extravagant opulence, deciding to focus attention on the strong characters and complex story. While the costumes are beautiful, and the scenery gorgeous, this is not a pictorial romp through the English countryside.

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