Review of The Duchess
Saturday, August 28, 2010 • 8:52am
Adapted from Amanda Foreman's biography about Georgiana Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire and remote ancestor of Princess Diana, The Duchess is a bleak film. Those who haven't read the book learn that Georgiana (Keira Knightley) became a public celebrity in late 18th century England due to her stylish fashions and her wit and charm. But all the fame and glamour could not bring her happiness; she was trapped in an arranged and loveless marriage with the icy Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes).
Cavendish treated her as property rather than as a person, useful only for producing heirs. Enraged that she couldn't provide him with any sons for a very long time, the Duke seduced other women and eventually made Georgiana's best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) his mistress. Starved for affection, the Duchess began an affair with Earl Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a progressive politician who had all the warmth and sensitivity Cavendish lacked. But although Grey wanted her to leave her husband and marry him and actually sired by her a daughter, the Duke made her end the affair, threatening to banish her from seeing her other children.
Despite the film's depressing scenario, The Duchess is riveting viewing, mainly due to the wonderful acting. Keira Knightley is especially outstanding. As the movie progresses, she believably transforms from a guileless and hopeful teenager to a worldly-wise and disillusioned woman. A dazzling sight sporting towering wigs and exquisite dresses, Knightley projects by turns a blue-blooded sophistication, an avaricious lustfulness, and a heartbreaking wistfulness. In short, she embodies a well-rounded characterization of a cosmopolitan lady who outwardly embraces her materialistic lifestyle but inwardly yearns for spiritual happiness.
Ralph Fiennes is suitably unattractive as the coldhearted Duke of Devonshire, incapable of showing any genuine love except to his dogs. Nevertheless, Fiennes doesn't play the role as a one-dimensional martinet but as a frustrated human being who feels repressed by the rigid protocol of his role in the British aristocracy. Although he has an outwardly stony countenance, his eyes reveal his inner turmoil. When he watches his frolicking children through a window, he muses, "How wonderful to be that free."
There are other distinguished performances, especially Hayley Atwell as Bess Foster. Like Knightley and Fiennes, she also provides a vivid, three-dimensional characterization. Forbidden by her own cruel ex-husband from seeing her children, she only sleeps with the powerful Duke so he can use his influence to reunite her with them. Encouraging Georgiana to shed her carnal inhibitions, Bess caresses her, asking her to imagine being loved by Grey.
Director Saul Sibb gives The Duchess all the visual beauty and splendor of late 18th century English royal society, evident in the majestic estate settings. The filming locations for these scenes were actual estates in England, making them all the more impressive. The period atmosphere is enhanced by Rachel Portman's lovely musical score.
A well made and compelling historical drama, The Duchess is a crowning achievement for the careers of both the filmmakers and the leading actors. I'll bet that moviegoers who know little about Georgiana Spencer will be so impressed by the film, they'll read Amanda Foreman's book.
Now playing at Clearview's Beacon Hill Cinema 5 in Summit, NJ, it is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.
Raymond Valinoti, Jr. is a librarian, freelance writer and researcher. He writes movie reviews for TheAlternativePress.com
The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TheAlternativePress.com or anyone who works for TheAlternativePress.com. TheAlternativePress.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.