The Duchess

Oh so stately, the epitome of ‘Englishness’ and risqué too, this is the story of Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley) who is virtually sold into marriage at the tender age of 17. Shamelessly naïve Georgiana enters the zenith of high society at the impossibly glum side of the ageing Duke of Devonshire. She has only one duty to perform, the classic plight of 18th century wives, which is to bear a male heir or suffer the consequences. The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is quite happy to uphold his side of the bargain but in all honesty is more interested in molesting his staff and playing with his dogs than conducting any semblance of love or understanding for Georgiana. In fact the Duke’s relationship with his dogs might as well amount to the greatest love affair of the narrative.

{{ quote The banter between Cooper and Knightley is lively and fraught }}

This sad state of affairs compounded by several miscarriages, still births, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke being ushered into the house and only two healthy girls of her own, forces Georgiana to live a life burdened by societal failure. So she lashes out, as only a woman of her standing and enterpise could, through fashion, celebrity, politics and scandal. She averts her eyes from her husband’s misdemeanours only until he steals her one single possession, her best friend, Bess Foster. Rupturing their very healthy attitude of avoidance and reluctant acceptance, Georgiana and the Duke are thrown together in a ménage a trios of betrayal and resentment. Sex, dangerous admissions, marital rape and mental breakdown ensue. In that order.

Saul Dibbs’s portrayal of this warped aristocratic marriage is taken from Amanda Foreman’s best-selling biography of the true life of Georgiana Cavendish. Both detail this woman’s political campaigning for the Liberal party and her subsequent love affair with one of their leading orators destined to become Prime Minister, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). They also divulge her incessent gambling, a penchant for wine and an insatiable appetite for clothing. She is, it appears every bit the modern woman with the added extra of incredible wigs.

So much so it appears that links to the late Diana, Princess of Wales have been rife and seem intent on clouding any reception to the film, including this one too now. Granted, Diana is a direct descendant of the Duchess of Devonshire and they seem to have shared a love of fashion, devoting time to the masses and lived their private lives publicly. The tagline, “There were three people in her marriage” doesn’t do much for dissuading comparison either, so ok, there is a lot connecting the two, but let’s leave it at that and move on to something almost equating the same level of controversy; the question of Keira Knightley’s acting ability. Yay or nay?

Tricky question. Without a doubt Dominic Cooper’s depiction of Charles Grey is slightly insipid but touching nonetheless and the banter between Cooper and Knightley is lively and fraught. It gives the film an energy which, were it missing, might make the 110 minutes drag somewhat. Fiennes is of course a master, stalking the set with an “I’m-set-in-my-ways-don’t-cross-me” demeanour and a slightly blank look in the eyes which makes you feel rather hopeless. And Knightley, trussed up beautifully in dresses which suspend belief and defy gravity, is effortlessly striking. Arguably you could put this down to the overt fashion, the ridiculous but enviable hair and her apparent innocence which casts a misty pallor cast over her character’s life of disappointment. However, Knightley is rather suited to this period drama malarkey which she has proved in working with Joe Wright on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, but I would say she has filled the corners of this role with a braveness and emotional appeal that when playing Elizabeth Bennet and Cecilia Tallis, was rather clipped. It was the scenes of Knightley performing with a poise that resonated and outweighed her 23 years when depicting Georgiana’s struggle to be and remain a mother that drove my own Mother to drench the seats of Cineworld with tears. If that doesn’t convince you of Knightley’s ability to elicit some emotional response in this film, I’m not sure what will to be honest.

This film undeniably has a stunning setting, a moving narrative and a cast that works together amazingly well even if it is a little cold at times. Disregard the scandal over the comparisons and concentrate on the salaciousness of the film itself. In all its glory, it is constructed out of English heritage, hair pins, corsets and harrowing compromise. Go forth and adore.

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