I was a latecomer getting into movies. Yes, I enjoyed film before my addiction really kicked in. During those formative years there were types of movies that I did not really care for, mostly for superficial reasons. One of those types of movies was the costume drama. You know the type, they tend to be set in Europe, mostly England, and involve people talking funny and wearing big dresses and such. Being the guy that I was at that time, I had no interest in those films.
Well, times have changed and I am more open to giving them a shot. Yes, some of them are truly great films, but I occasionally get that "more of the same" feeling, and that is what makes The Duchess work. I may get that same feeling, but the performances are first rate and truly carry the feature.
Earlier this year, the big screen was graced with The Other Boleyn Girl. That was not a good film. That film centered on the sexual politics and the tempestuous relationship between Ann Boleyn and King Henry VIII. It was an overblown soap opera that failed to inject any genuine drama or emotion into the proceedings. I left feeling nothing. I did not care about them. This disappointment left The Duchess with a big task ahead of it. Yes, I know that one really doesn't have to do with the other, but it is somewhat inevitable that the two will be compared in some way.
The Duchess centers on Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire and an ancestor of Princess Diana (a fact mentioned in some of the promo material, but immaterial to the film itself). Georgiana (Keira Knightley) was sent into wedlock with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) at the young age of 16. She initially is excited for the high profile marriage. However, her experience soon begins to sour as he proves to be an inexperienced lover, a lousy conversationalist, has multiple affairs, and appears to love his dogs more than her. This all happens behind the scenes; her public life is a different matter all together.
In public, she is smiles and waves, and a fashion plate and topic of conversation the nation over. She was a true celebrity of the time, a lightning rod for gossip, and one who used her popularity to bring attention to the Whig party, showing support for Charles Fox and Charles Grey. She also was not shy about offering her views on politics and her support for the American colonists and the French Revolution. She was certainly ahead of her time in this regard.
The drama is truly built on her inability to bear the Duke a male heir (as if she could really affect this particular outcome). The Duke strikes up an affair with Lady Bess (Hayley Atwell), a woman who was a victim of her own husband who had taken a mistress and cut her off from her children. This does not sit well with Georgiana, who looks to cut a deal so that she can pursue her feelings for Earl Grey (yes, same as the tea). This makes the Duke seriously upset to the point that he rapes her in an effort to obtain a son.
You know, this really is more of the same. So many of these films tell tales of sexual politics, repressive class structures, and women who struggle to live within the confines of said society. I am reminded of the numerous biopics that center on musicians, in particular Ray and Walk the Line. In those cases, like in these true story period pieces, the bigger stories get boiled down to their essence in order fit within a typical movie run time. The problem is that the essence of these stories winds up being terribly similar, and the primary differences end up being the names.
So, this being the case, what makes the films stand out from one another? The first thing has to be the sets and costumes, which are perennial Oscar nomination favorites. Again, they do end up being similar, so it is a case of capturing a high level of authenticity, which is accomplished here. The period has been impeccably captured, everything looks fantastic. On this account, The Duchess is successful.
The other primary way for a movie of this ilk to stand out is the acting. Keira Knightley leads the charge, bringing a welcome complexity to her performance as Georgiana. She plays the public face of self-assuredness and intelligence countered with the private torment that she is forced to endure with a good deal of conviction; you cannot refute her acting here. Ralph Fiennes is saddled with a one note character, but he brings a fire to the performance that is undeniable. He inspires the audience to hate him — there is no other way to feel about him — and Fiennes makes sure that is all that you feel. Hayley Atwell does a fine job as Bess, walking a moral tight rope between her affections for her lover and her loyalty to her friend.
Bottom line. This is a good film. The story does not really cover any ground that we haven't been over before, but the design is beautiful and the acting is downright excellent. If you are a fan of period drama, you will want to see this one, no doubt about it. Even if you aren't as big a fan it may be worth spending some time with. I do not regret the time we shared.