The Duchess (2008)
Imagine you are a studio executive and somebody brings you a script idea. It is about a young woman that is a fashion icon and is extremely outspoken in public. At first your mind may go to one of the plethora of young women that are famous because they are rich and attractive. You might think of the ones that are constantly stalked by the paparazzi around the world. In the case of one such script you would have been off by a couple of hundred years. The film ‘The Duchess’ is about Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire who lived from 1757 to 1806. She was royalty in England and was actually the great-great-great-great-aunt of the late Princess Diana. Here in the States we can barely keep track of great grand parents but over in the United Kingdom such things as distant lineage are of vital importance. A film about some royal who lived centuries ago would hardly seem like a subject of interest here in America but fortunately for us the story is fascinating and well presented. The fact is if Georgiana was alive today she would without a doubt be a constant figure on the tabloids and gossip segments of the news. The film is a lavish production and one of the better period dramas that has come around in a while. While it does not posses the gravitas of some of the classics in this genre such as ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘A Man for All Seasons’ it does have a certain charm that helps to carry the movie. It does offer a little bit of something for most members of the audience. There is plenty of political intrigue, betrayal, deception, beautiful period gowns, and some of the biggest hair and hats ever seen. This film is not what you might expect. It isn’t a romantic time as seen through a young woman’s eyes. It is a stark and realistic portal into the way women were treated and expected to act in that time. Georgiana was far ahead of her time in the way she would not let her spirit be dominated. When you look at the attention to details here in the costumes and sets it is difficult to believe that this film cost a mere $20 million. Every now and then it is good to take a break from our modern world and revisit the more lavish past. This film provides such a journey. The film is on DVD and Blu-ray through Paramount and it is one that will bring some enjoyment to the audience.
The story was based on the novel ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’ by Amanda Foreman. Apparently it took over a decade to bring it to the screen. Handling the script was Saul Dibb, Anders Thomas Jensen and Jeffrey Hatcher. Dibb has one previous screenplay, ‘Bullet Boy’ a tough, modern urban drama. Jensen has a long career mostly in his native Denmark that includes a nice assortment of genres including some period pieces. Prior to this script Hatcher wrote ‘Casanova’ and ‘Stage Beauty’. Both of these films are set in Europe in the distant past and also provided very strong and independent female characters. Considering the subject here he was a natural for this project. Some may consider Georgiana as a young woman who was ahead of her time. The way the story plays out here this is not the case. She was most definitely rooted in the time she lived. It is just that she knew how to play the system for her own advantage. While she would never have the power of independence of a man Georgiana did manage to make a mark in popular society and became a fashion trendsetter of great renowned and political activist. As a father of a daughter I usually enjoy a movie that shows a strong young woman as a leading character. Georgiana was the type of person who sought her own path through live no matter how much gossip and chatter it might cause.
Dibb also served as the director of this film. Before this he had that aforementioned urban drama and a documentary short to his name. This film therefore represents a major first for DIbb. He does exceptionally well in recreating the look and feel of the period. Onbe thing that works well in the way Dibb guides this film is the character development. There is a tendency to overly polarize the characters in a movie of this genre. The young woman is completely good; taken advantage of by the heinous monster of a man. Here Georgiana, beautifully played by Keira Knightley, is initially young and naïve but soon learns that this is the way that the word works so she might as well take advantage of it. Her husband, the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) is not the typical one note villain. He was brought up to be a duke not prince charming. He is not so much a villain as he is a man with social ranking and absolutely no social graces.
Georgiana was married to the Duke a day before her 17th birthday. On paper this looked like an ideal match; the Duke was a man of wealth, social status and some political power. Unfortunately for young Georgiana he was completely ill equipped to be a husband. All he wanted and expected from his young bride was to give him an heir. Sex was not romantic; it was brutal and today would be called spousal rape. The Duke also had the audacity to keep his mistress, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) under the same roof as his wife. In that age there was little a wife could do but sit back and put up with the match that was made for her. Georgiana took a different pathway. She had her own affairs particularly with Charles the 2nd Earl Grey. While such marital arrangements where not unheard of this was fuel for much gossip. Georgiana also became a public figure on her own. She was one of the leading influences in the fashion of the day. Whatever she wore one night was the hit of the social scene and latest trend by the next morning. Georgiana was also far more politically outspoken than a young woman back then. She was a tireless supporter of the Whig party which favored a constitutional monarchy instead of absolute rule typically held by royalty. This also made her a royal that was beloved by the common throng; something a young woman of good breeding should not consider.
The cast here is perfect. Ms Knightley may still be in her early twenties but she has amble experience in period costume films. She is wonderful in this role giving an incredible balance between beauty and grace with a fiery strength and independence. It looked as if she had a lot of fun with this character and this translated into her becoming the duchess. When you see some of the outfits she had to wear in this role you have to wonder if the studio provided a chiropractor; the dresses looked like they weighted a ton and the head pieces required several additional feet of clearance in the doorways. Fiennes is a fantastic actor who does brooding better than anyone on the scene. He gives dimension to the Duke making him a man to piety instead of just hating him.
Paramount does do a great job of bringing the film to your home theater. The video is exception and presents the vivid colors and textures amazingly well. The audio is great with an excellent sound field. There are featurettes that include the production and the fashion of the film. This is a film that you will enjoy.