The Duchess is a movie about love, a movie about revenge, a movie about control, and a movie about Britain in its golden era. It is a character study, a love story, and a time-piece. Really, The Duchess, has no idea what type of story it wants to be. Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire, a populist, Whig Party-supporting, fashion icon that would put Caroline Kennedy to shame. Dominic Cooper plays Sir. Charles Grey, her long-time love interest and the future Prime Minister (Whig) of Britain. Ralph Fiennes plays the Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana’s husband and the political leader of the Whig Party. The cast is rounded out with Hayley Atwell (Bess Foster), Simon McBurney (Charles Fox), and Charlotte Rampling (Lady Spencer).
The Duchess tells the story of a young girl, one who is still idealistic about what love is, who is married away at such a young age. She goes from living a life with her mother, a life of friendship, and a life of flirtations with Mr. Grey, to living a life of luxury, of solitude, and of deceit. Losing friends, her mother, and her innocence, Georgina is forced to grow up, and rather quickly, through the movie. With a husband who is abusive, a friend who betrays her (but later apologizes), and a mother who is not caring, she is forced to be an adult far more quickly then she ever intended to. Until the day she bore a son (which, of course, was her purpose in the marriage), she was not truly free and did not belong in that society.
As any celebrity knows, the pressure of having all of those eyes upon you causes you to do odd and harmful things to yourself; Georgina was no exception to this rule. From being a popular noble, to being exceptionally fashionable (she created the fashions), to being the voice and look of the Whig Party, Georgina was the center of attention. The movie follows this perfectly, as it looks at her downfall, from drugs, gambling, and drinking with an abstract eye. From the monetary losses during games in Bath, to the affair with Mr. Grey, The Duchess leaves no leaf unturned in following the decent from innocence to rock bottom. But, just as equally, it follows the redemption of Georgina as she accepts who she is, what she is, and becomes comfortable in herself. From her leaving Grey, for his sake and her children’s sake, to her accepting Bess as her husband’s lover, The Duchess keeps a non-judging view of the whole situation. This is essential to good storytelling, and is something that the movie does perfectly.
The Duchess tries to fit too many roles at once, which does leave some unanswered questions lingering. As a character study, it analyzes the relationships between three people, Georgina, Bess, and the Duke, and how they actually live together. This is done very well, and should have been the main part of the story. As a love story, the movie falters when it doesn’t come to the stereotypical end; the girl doesn’t get with her boy. To me, this ruined the whole love story, which, while important and engaging, should not have been focused upon so much. As a history, they should have left it alone. While the movie is based on a true story, they took far too many liberties with this ‘truth’. From the actions and politics of the Whig Party, to the mannerisms of the populace, to the debunked claim that the ‘rule of thumb’ applies to the beating of a person, The Duchess flounders in its attempt to even be reasonably historical. You took a name and some facts, good for you, now stop claiming that it is based on a true story.
Keira Knightley plays a damn-good Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. She portrays the innocence, the feelings, and the loss perfectly. From the looks in her eyes, to the way she hangs her body, to the slight tremors in her voice, Keira donned the perfect persona for this role. However, she was easily bested by the portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire by Ralph Fiennes. Playing a misunderstood man, who truly tried to love, and tried to do what he thought Georgina wanted, he owned the movie. He loved, as he knew it, but it was not enough, neither for Georgina or the audience. This hard man was raised this way, but he struggled throughout the movie to ‘right’ himself and become what he needed to be. This was a man we were designed to dislike, but by the end of the movie, we felt for him strongly. He was trapped by his conventions, his society, and his duty, but he tried to find ways around them. Ralph carried the movie with his portrayal of the Duke, and he made the movie as great as it was.
My favorite thing about The Duchess, besides the acting of Ralph Fiennes, is the costuming and set-work. Back in high school, I worked on the sets of some of our plays, and I know what a pain it is to get everything in studip to look nice and polished, but in the movie they have everything perfected, on location. Up and down the streets, in every direction, the buildings, scenery, and people are dressed perfectly for their part. As for the costuming, Michael O'Connor, outdid himself. The dresses, the colours, and the way that the makeup corresponded with the attitudes of the actors was perfect in this movie. And the hair, one can not say enough about how the hair was done. From Beehives to simply curls, Kiera’s hair was always the focus of the movie, and always well done. As Georgina was known for her style, this was a nice addition. Plus, it is amusing to see how the extras adapt to Georgina’s style once she started it, but she has already moved on. Little things like this make The Duchess a joy to watch.
Speaking of the looks of the movie, the image quality of The Duchess was impressive. With an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the 1080p image looks stunning on my TV screen. You could see the small freckles on Kiera’s nose, the veins in Dominic’s back, and the ripple of Georgina’s hair-feathers as she moved. Everything in the movie was clear, and good looking. The only issue, though, is the fact that the movie didn’t really need HD. Sure, it is nice to see everything in clear, stunning, and life-like colours, and to see the small screw-ups that the makeup artists did, but there was very little that needed that clarity. With no water, no sky shots, and no real action scenes, it almost seemed as though my TV and PS3 were wasted in displaying this movie. With the sole exception of the feathers and hairdos, there was little of interest to see in the Blu-ray version over the SD version.
The sound for The Duchess is available in English, French, and Spanish as Dolby Digital 5.1. While most films offer True Highdef, the lack of the THD sound from Dolby is not really that noticeable. With little action and almost no surrounding noise, the need for highdef sound does not exist. Arguably, this type of movie does not even need surround sound, but everybody seems to want it these days. Throughout the movie, the music was nicely balanced with the dialog, and there was very little lost in the din. The only things you lose are the mumbles of the extras at parties, but I assume that was intentional on the part of the director and in no way is the fault of the sound. Like the image quality, I would say that the sound quality on The Duchess was more then needed.
The Duchess on Blu-ray is worth the money only if you care about perfect quality, otherwise, I recommend getting the standard version and saving yourself some cash. The extras are nice, and the story is compelling, but the best part of the movie is the acting. This movie is perfect, for any member of your family.
The Duchess is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material. It is currently available as a single DVD and as a Blu-ray Disc.