The Duchess (2008) dir. Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Dominc Cooper
By Alan Bacchus
The obscene arrogance of British royalty is scathingly brought to the screen via this true story of Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire. I normally loathe these costume dramas, but the talented scribe Anders Thomas Jensen (After the Wedding, Brothers) elevates this wig and corset tale to the tragic levels he’s used to.
The opening shot of The Duchess features a woman seen from behind trotting about the English countryside wearing a grossly exaggerated garish wig. This is Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), who wears this symbol of high fashion with confidence and pride. Early on when Georgiana is informed by her doting mother (Charlotte Rampling) that she has arranged her marriage to a Duke (Ralph Fiennes) in the royal family, Georgiana’s dreams of being a woman of privilege, power and entitlement are within her grasp.
Little does she know the price of privilege will become a life of subjugation to her controlling and obsessively unemotional husband. Ralph Fiennes is cast correctly as the arrogant pompous Duke. The marriage is to serve only one purpose, that is to produce a male heir – a task which the Duke treats like the ability to serve tea. So when Georgiana cannot produce a son, the Duke turns to his mistresses for comfort. When the Duke flaunts his new mistress and Georgiana’s former best friend conspicuously about the castle, Georgiana takes up her own affair, the effects of which will be her unjust downfall in the family.
Knightley plays the Duchess with a strong sense of pride and confidence. Despite the Duke's neurotic behaviour and sexual dalliances, Georgiana always seems to hold a superiority over the beleaguered man. Unfortunately, it’s a man’s world and the Duke’s shamefully controlling and indecent behaviour cannot be matched or battled on equal grounds by Georgiana.
And so we wait for the Duke to get his comeuppance for a lifetime of obscene manipulation, but we never get it. This becomes the sad, tragic irony. Georgiana, who believes so strongly in freedom, is trapped in her own prison – the archaic feudal oppressiveness of aristocratic life.
Though it’s not explicitly told to us in the film, Princess Diana is reportedly a direct descendant of Georgiana’s, so it’s no coincidence that Georgiana’s fashion savvy and this early celebrity culture surrounding royalty at the time is the film’s contemporary metaphor. Non-royalty elected politics played a strong role in Georgiana’s life, and her support to Grey in the public helped get Grey elected to Prime Minister. The press are seen following her around at parties, making comic strips of her bold fashion statements. The subtle allegories to Princess Di’s unhappiness with the Royal Family, Charles’s dalliances and the ultimately tragic ending to her life add a profound modern context to the film. Enjoy.
The Duchess is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.