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This Week in Film: The Duchess

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

This evocative period piece strikes some emotional chords.

ImageWe’ve seen the story a million times before. It’s the 18th century and a beautiful young woman gets married to an older man with lots of dough and an important title. Of course she really doesn’t have much say in the matter even though she may be in love with someone else. It doesn’t take long before she realizes what an awful mistake she made but it’s too late; she’s pretty much doomed for life especially since she has four children. If I’m making the plot of The Duchess sound simplistic and common that’s because it is. What I haven’t yet expressed is how emotionally satisfying this film is, in no small part due to the performances of Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, who play the young woman and the older man that she’s married to.

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We are told this is all based on a true story and indeed these people did once exist. Knightley is Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire and Fiennes is the Duke, a man who like most men has trouble expressing how he feels. What he does best is use Georgiana for her gorgeous body while demanding she give him a son. Georgiana disappoints him by having two girls over the course of six years which makes the Duke even less inclined to show her any true love, in fact he shows more affection for his two dogs. The Duke has no problem enjoying the company of various women whenever he feels the need but if Georgiana looks at another man the wrong way, well that’s another story altogether. When she asks him if a female friend who needs a place to stay can take up residence in their mansion, the Duke allows it but we know it won’t take long before he enjoys her company as well.

The Duchess wants to show how an intelligent, beautiful woman who in our modern day may very well be Prime Minister material was forced to live far below her expectations and certainly one that made her abandon most of her principles. Think of being put in a situation where you have to watch your best friend become your husbands true companion, well not only have watch but in this case also live with that arrangement for your entire life. That was indeed the life of Georgiana and while we may question why any woman would accept that kind of a situation, we are living in the 21st century whereas the Duchess and other woman like her were living in a time where men ruled every aspect of society. When Georgiana has an affair with the man that truly loves her, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the Duke demands that she leave him or else she will never see her children again. At one point in the film, the Duke’s mistress, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) tells Georgiana that she has no choice but to surrender to the Duke if she wants to see her own estranged children. “There’s a limit to the sacrifices a mother will make for her children” Georgiana tells her, “No there’s not”, Bess replies. Georgiana learns that lesson once she is forced to make that ultimate sacrifice herself.

There are times during the film when I could hear women in the audience gasping at the decisions Georgiana makes, and at the demands that the Duke makes of her. The Duchess is that rare period piece that really strikes an emotional chord when it comes to the sacrifices women once had to make. Keira Knightley is magnificent as Georgiana; she brings the intense disgust and repulsion that her character must face on a daily basis to the surface. Knightley lets us see that Georgiana, while not having many options, was always thinking about her next possible move. If there was a way out she would have found it. Fiennes has an even tougher role as the Duke; it would have been so easy to play him as a mean, arrogant son of a bitch, and while he is all of that Fiennes also makes the Duke human. When he tries to explain to Georgiana how he too feels repulsed by what’s happened we actually believe him. The Duke is also trapped in a time and place where a man like him had few options, he simply acts the way he believes he’s supposed to act. It’s a credit to Fiennes that we come away from the film with mixed feelings about the Duke, thinking that if times were different he might have been a better husband.

The Duchess is directed by Saul Dibb, who until now I hadn’t heard of. He gets the period details right, but he’s much more concerned with getting to the emotional core of the story. We might cringe at what Georgiana had to put up with and we might detest the behavior of the Duke, but unlike today there was more at stake than a house or a car. There was no “shared” custody of children and women couldn’t even vote. When the Duke, looking out a window at their children playing in the field says to Georgiana “How wonderful to be so totally free,” he seems as much of a slave to the times as the Duchess. I’m sure he never could have envisioned a woman running for President, but I tend to believe that deep down even he might have championed the idea.