Oppression and Love, 18th Century Style
by Molly Templeton
THE DUCHESS: Directed by Saul Dibb. Screenplay by Dibb, Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen, based on the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. Cinematography, Gyula Pados. Music, Rachel Portman. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Simon McBurney and Hayley Atwell. Paramount Vantage, 2008. PG-13.
Sure, The Duchess is a bit of a paint-by-numbers period piece about a loveless marriage and an 18th century woman with relatively modern sensibilities, but it’s such a nicely made bit of familiarity that I’m loath to hold its predicability against it. Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, a young woman who at the movie’s very start is given to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in marriage. All he wants is a son, but our girl G is a dreamer; she longs for a loving relationship to go with the adoration of her ever-expanding legions of admirers (including Simon McBurney, who owns his minor role enjoyably). The Duchess cheats a bit when it leaps forward six years following the birth of G’s first daughter; we’re told that the duchess is now the empress of fashion, but her popularity is unexplained. Perhaps it’s something to do with G’s doe eyes and impeccable bearing, even under the worst strain. Her one friend, Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), commits the worst betrayal, and the Duke denies Georgiana the equivalent of his resulting extramarital relationship.
Nothing here points toward an exactly happy ending, does it? But there’s enjoyment in the players’ solid performances, and Knightley, though she relies too much on a defiant chin-jut, does well with yet another coy, witty, lovely young woman fighting against the tide. Fiennes’ duke is a sexist, horrid product of his time but still human; as G’s childhood sweetheart, Charles Grey, Dominic Cooper gets short screen time, but his sturdy good looks are a great foil for Knightley’s delicacy.
In its beautifully costumed, carefully put together, not-too-strident way, The Duchess is concerned with the oppression of women, the ease with which a husband could destroy his wife’s world and the parellels between G’s fame and modern celebrity. But wrapped up in the expected themes are the unexpected, interesting, complicated relationships among Georgiana, the duke and Elizabeth, who all live together for years. It’s this depiction of the push and pull between friendship and love, and between different sorts of love, that makes The Duchess memorable — and commendable.
The Duchess opens Friday, Oct. 24, at the Bijou.