The Duchess (2008)

Director: Saul Dibb

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By Roderick Heath

Keira Knightley in a corset time again—but with a difference. The Duchess tells, with fewer punches pulled than expected, the story of Georgiana Cavendish, whose marriage to the fifth Duke of Devonshire was a private disaster and a public triumph, as Georgiana became one of the Whig Party’s greatest assets as an attention magnet. Under the corsetry and country house porn, The Duchess is a rather brutal tale that serves as something of a corrective (perhaps “reminder” is the fairer term) to the sunshine of the current Jane Austen cult. Then again, Austen, an active figure, as was her father, in the Abolitionist movement, tried to make witty observations on the habits of a society that treated human relations as a form of property exchange even in its highest circles. Yet The Duchess offers a solid reminder of how being a bird in a gilded cage was no happy fate.

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Knightley’s Georgiana is introduced as a sunny-faced innocent, betting on a foot race between local beaux, including the pouchy-lipped young Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), without a thought of the fate that awaits her. An alien eye watches her from the window of the adjacent mansion; it belongs to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), to whom she is soon promised by her mother (Charlotte Rampling, whose icy eyes get a workout) like so much chattel. Soon she’s married and being bedded like a sow matched to the bull, as the Duke, with all the moral and emotional depth of a glass of beer, single-mindedly pursues his aim of producing an heir for his staggering wealth and power.

Georgiana strikes up a friendship with and provides shelter to Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), a runaway from a putrid marriage and barred from seeing her children by her adulterous husband. Bess soon becomes the Duke’s mistress, initially to persuade him to use his clout to pry her children away from her husband, but eventually becoming a fixture in the house despite Georgiana’s initial outrage.

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One irony is that the Duke is a political liberal, searching half-heartedly for a way out of the same old aristocratic prerogatives even as he exercises them mercilessly. Georgiana is soon introduced into his circle of political acquaintances, including Charles Fox (Simon McBurney), soon to be Whig Prime Minister, with whom the Duke is quickly bored but Georgiana engages in a debate about the immutable nature of freedom. Soon Georgiana is using her remarkable clout as a fashion template and all-round attention-getter to work up crowds and the press to support the Whigs, whilst failing to give her husband anything but two girls and also bringing up his illegitimate daughter from a liaison with a servant. She also meets up again with Charles Grey, now a fervent Whig MP, and old flirtations renew themselves.

It’s a promising starting point for a tale, examining a societal set-up that is infinite in both its hypocrisies and its hungers. Georgiana is an avatar for so much of her time: hugely admired and influential in public arena, powerless and constantly thwarted in her home life. The Duchess doesn’t really live up to its potential, mostly because it never really challenges the conventions of the bourgeois period film, let alone making a truly original feminist critique of historical power plays. Nor does it delve with assiduous precision into the relation between etiquette and power, as does Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. And it doesn’t bristle with a sense of period life like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. It’s a fundamentally safe type of movie, and perhaps Georgiana, a rule breaker, deserved something more radical. The Duchess is more like Ken Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird in fancy period garb.

The film’s saddest lapse is that though it encompasses a very important political and cultural period that are relevant to the tale it has to tell, The Duchess has disappointingly little to say. Georgiana’s friend Richard Sheridan (played in the film by Aidan McArdle) based his famous satire School for Scandal around the Duke and Duchess’ marriage, but this is a mere throwaway detail here. Fox’s and Grey’s politics are reduced to simplistic epigrams; the complex Grey is especially denuded to a pretty-boy spouter of clichés about the times they are a’changin’. The Duchess’ makers obviously decided at some point that all period politics would be beyond an audience more interested in heaving bosoms, insulted stares, and teary breakdowns. But without a clear picture of the social dimension of the tale, the film becomes, finally, just a rather rugged domestic melodrama.

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The script lacks depth beyond its portrait of Georgiana; it can’t make the Duke’s or Bess’s characters translucent enough. Fiennes is terrific in playing the Duke as a kind of monster who doesn’t like being allowed to be one. It would perhaps be more comfortable if the Duke was a rollicking shout-out of a preindustrial Britain like Fielding’s Squire Western, bedding maids and bashing noses with aplomb, or a plain monster fit for getting a comeuppance from Mel Gibson on some fantasy American battlefield—anything but the profoundly uncomfortable, utterly incoherent mixture of prerogative and hesitation that Fiennes plays so beautifully. But I’m not so sure it’s a coherent character concept, as both the characterisation and the performance seem to have been drawn partly from a caricature of Prince Charles, who, for all his faults, was never this kind of jerk.

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The film’s at its most intense, and also its best, when studying private hypocrisy. The Duke can, of course, parade his mistress Bess about along with his wife, refuse to send her away when Georgiana is in the first grip of her rage, and eventually settle down to the trio sharing. That she might be their mutual girlfriend is an idea toyed with in a moment of pure bodice-ripper fantasy when Bess caresses Georgiana in the persona of Grey, but remains, in essence, a rather sorry tease. The film observes, but can’t really say much about the sort of alternative family arrangement the characters stumble into, because it’s more involved in making us feel sorry for Georgiana. It does that, but in failing to find anything beyond that, the film, with an outraged stance to the private life in addition to the scrappy, unengaged approach to the social, never really finds what it wants to be about. The film leaves off precisely when it and Georgiana ought to be hitting their stride.

When Georgiana’s romance with Grey blossoms into a proper affair, the Duke snuffs it out with brutal thoroughness in a glorious example of the double standard. Georgiana has to then give up her and Grey’s love-child, Eliza, to the Grey family, on a marshy road under a grey threatening sky—a devastatingly well-handled scene that captures a kind of primal horror of being foiled by social expectations. Aided by Gyula Pados’ good photography, the scene is director Saul Dibb’s finest moment. He felicitously handles Georgiana’s rape by the Duke, communicated through Bess’s reactions to the screams behind the door, and the climax. Otherwise, his direction is largely ordinary, and revels in lazy TV habits, like a shot that’s pure soap opera as Georgiana walks away from Grey only to be stalled just facing camera front by his cry. With no intellectual dexterity to this filmmaking, The Duchess dangles close to historical soap opera.

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Ultimately, Knightley has to do a lot of work to hold the film together and thrust Georgiana across as a creature of real depth. A skinny little wisp of a thing, rather than the voluptuous Georgiana that Gainsborough painted, she still pulls it off. Her acting in some scenes, like the delicate minuet of expressions she displays in watching the Duke play with Bess’s children, and recognising that Bess has essentially taken her place, is of a high calibre indeed. One of the film’s strangest moments and Knightley’s best scenes has Georgiana cavorting through a fashionable crowd, dressed to the nines, yet blind drunk and in a near mesmerised state of depression, her wig aflame long before she realises it. It’s her best performance to date, though she can’t help but pale in relation to Fiennes, who plays emotional obfuscation like a master musician. Few others in the cast get a chance to shine. Rampling and Atwell—two interesting actresses at opposite ends of their careers—are both affecting without getting much of substance to do. Ultimately The Duchess is affecting, even rather powerful in places, and though, as a whole, it barely breaks out of the confines of its corsetry as a costume-clad weepie, it deserves notice for being rather tougher and more demanding than many such a bonbon. l

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