Genre: Drama, History
by: Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling
Released by: Paramount Vantage
Short: Keira Knightley shines in this disturbing look at how women's lives were once completely controlled, circa England in the late 1700s.
You've Come a Long Way, Baby!
A Devastating Duchess Illuminates the Bad Old Days for Females
From the moment The Duchess begins, it is a gorgeous thing to behold. Set among the top tiers of England's aristocracy during the late 1700s, the film is an eye-popping collection of elaborate estates, over-the-top gowns, and stunningly beautiful people.
But the story is anything but pretty, as The Duchess explores the tormented life of Georgiana Spencer (yes, the same Spencer family who brought us Princess Diana centuries later), who at age 17 married the much older Duke of Devonshire in 1774 (played with an icy horribleness by Ralph Fiennes) and took world of English upper-crust society by storm. As played by Keira Knightley, Georgiana is everything a man could want: she's a lovely, accomplished, intelligent and sympathetic woman.
Unfortunately, while the world of the British aristocracy (and beyond) adored her, the duke was completely indifferent to the duchess—a familiar scenario, again, with echoes of the Diana-Charles marriage debacle—and only cared about her as a vessel for producing a male heir to his vast fortune and power. Unfortunately, the duchess began having baby girls, and with that, became the object of her husband's derision.
The film is a classic period piece with a bit of a twist, as Georgiana comes to exemplify a sort of everywoman despite her great wealth and privilege. Her daughters are treated with disdain by their father, she is pushed aside in her own home by her husband's mistress, and she cannot do a thing about it without losing everything, despite her valiant (and very sexual) attempts to try to control her own life.
The Duchess is a devastating tale of female woe as well as is an insightful look at the limits that women were forced to live within, both inside high society and out until well into the twentieth century. It is a cautionary tale, too, one that reminds 21st-century females that it was not so very long ago that their destinies were completely controlled by men, and that will hopefully help them remember that taking women's current liberties for granted is probably a very big mistake.
Reviewed by Jenny Peters