"The Duchess" opens today

Rated PG13

Directed by Saul Dibb

Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charolette Rampling

Heidi’s Illustrious Review: 2.75

Word of Warning: Very tame sex scenes.

It’s no secret – I am a fan of the period movie.   “Marie Antoinette” was my favorite movie of 2006, and recently my husband  pointed out that  there are very few period movies I don’t like. I quickly reminded him of my illustrious opinions of “Atonement,” a period piece and Oscar nominated  movie I intensely disliked.

I was able to see a last minute  pre-screening  of  “The Duchess,” and  I knew very little about  the  film  or the  true story of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. Keira Knightly portrays the Duchess, who was  married at age 17, to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The movie begins at Georgiana’s family estate where the audience  becomes painfully aware the marriage  has been  arranged by Georgiana’s mother and the Duke’s handlers.

At first Georgiana is delighted, but this quickly turns to disappointment as it becomes apparent the  two are not a good match. The Duke is single-mindedly set on having a boy and as the  years  pass the Duchess gives birth to girl after girl. Despite having  gained the  distain  of her  husband, Georgiana becomes a popular socialite  on the London scene. She becomes a fashion trendsetter and active campaigner for  the Whig party, though women wouldn’t get the vote in England for  another hundred years.

The  cinematography of “The Duchess”  sets the tone  of the story.  The camera often pans slowly across elaborate scenes  depicting the  excesses  of the day, and yet  there  is always a  grayish hue to the otherwise lavish scenes. It is as if the director is giving us a glimpse into  the  reality of Georgiana’s position; in spite of the wealth and privilege her status provides she is married to a man who does not love her  and who eventually takes a live-in mistress (Hayley Atwell, most recently in “Brideshead Revisited“).

Keira Knightley  received accolades for her role in “Atonement,” but  I thought she was better in this movie.  Georgiana  was a complex woman in a time when women were considered and treated as  one-dimensional creatures. Knightley is able to portray the mult-facetted personality of the Duchess and make the character relatable to the modern-day woman.

Much has been made of the fact that Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire’s story has similarities to that of Princess Diana (1961-1997). In fact, the two women are related. Diana, Princess of Wales, was a descendant of Georgiana’s brother, the 2nd Earl Spencer. Though some parallels do exist between the lives of these two woman, Keira Knightley has stated that the film has not intentionally tied the stories together. Even Amanda Foreman, the author of the book  on which the movie is based has spoken out against the  gossip  trying to connect the movie to Diana. Still, it is impossible not to recognize similarities  in the  lives of the two women; each  was unwittingly  thrust into the public eye,  each  became an  icon of fashion and  eventually each became embroiled in very public maritial  troubles.

Although Keira Knightley performs well, this movie leaves much to be desired. Ralph Fiennes uptight portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire sums up my opinion of this movie  –  stuffy. It is an adaptation of a biography, not a novel, and therefore it is simply the straightforward  story of a life and not a particularly significant  life (from an historical perspective). Georgiana Cavendish was the flavor of her day, but in reality she was just another socialite. It is an interesting  portrait of  how woman were viewed and treated in 18th Century England, but otherwise “The Duchess” did not really impress me. If you enjoy period pieces, I’d recommend waiting until it comes to DVD.

**Originally published HERE on September 22, 2008.

1 Comment


  1. Really, the film does not compare to the book. Biography though it may be, it reads easily like a novel. Georgiana had a very fascinating life which did not transition too well onto the screen. She was exceedingly active in politics, a behind-the-scenes savior to her country-which was not terribly fashionable for a woman in her time. Hence, she sort of prepared the world stage for the feminist movement. The brilliantly complex character she really was could never be harnassed into a script. All that said, I enjoyed the sinematography of the film, but the book is amazing. If you enjoyed The Duchess slightly on the screen, you will fall in love with her on paper. 🙂

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