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Movie Review: The Duchess

The Duchess

The Duchess offers entertainment for both men and women:

Has there ever been a period piece about an arranged marriage that actually ended with the two people involved happy together and in love? This was the first thing I thought of as I watched The Duchess, an excellent but thoroughly depressing account of the marriage of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire. As bad and outdated as is the idea of an arranged marriage, surely there was one woman and one man who came together and both made an effort to get to know and love one another, and whose story has been subsequently told. Of course, that kind of bland humanity, down-to-earth romance and earnestness is probably much less interesting cinematically than a story in which bosoms heave and hearts are betrayed. But then again The Duchess is largely successful because it manages to offer those degrees of humanity and romance (if not blandness) amidst the rest of its potent, bodice-ripping drama.

Keira Knightley, who was born to wear corsets, scoop-necked gowns and hairdos that highlight her swanlike neck, plays Georgiana – a young aristocrat whose mother Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) arranges to marry the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Despite her efforts to become a worthy companion for her husband, Georgiana disappoints the Duke when she fails to bear him a son – twice. But when she makes friends with another woman named Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) who similarly toils in a loveless marriage, she finds a kindred spirit – that is, until Bess betrays her with the Duke. Soon, the three of them are living together, and Georgiana becomes a prisoner in her own home, with only her children, her former friend Bess, and the forbidden promise of a long-ago romance with a young politician named Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) as distractions from her dreary existence.

In predictable but effective form, The Duchess is full of sequences in which modern women will be rightfully outraged by the behavior of her husband, and moreover, the prevailing culture of 18th Century England. At the same time, there are numerous scenes in which Georgiana stands up for herself and in spite of those restrictions, she asserts her identity and makes her feelings known. Perhaps in specific comparison to the truly godawful “women’s films” that were released in recent months (The Women and Sex and the City in particular), the reason that The Duchess stands out so sharply is that unlike the overprivileged females who fret and preen about their pampered lives and quite frankly frivolous personal problems, Georgiana literally has almost no rights, and cannot do anything to change her situation. She is required to make horrifying sacrifices and endure painful losses, and the movie rightfully points out that no girls’ night out or trip to the Victorian-era equivalent of Saks 5th Avenue will repair them.

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