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Movie Review: The Duchess

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The Duchess presents to the world a new side of Keira Knightley that has much improved since her days as Elizabeth Swan. No disrespect to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, but her new role plays a far better tribute to women’s troubles than Ms. Swan’s line “You like pain? Try wearing a corset.”

In the film set in the 18th century, Knightley plays Georgiana who is newly married to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), a man whose sole priority lies in producing an heir. Georgiana’s first mistake is assuming that his proposal means that he is in love with her, an idea that she soon puts to rest when their time in the bedroom is less than romantic. The marriage is further complicated when the Duke takes in Georgiana’s best friend Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as his mistress. Despite Georgiana’s demands to have Bess kicked out, the Duke refuses and she is forced to endure an awkward three-way relationship.

Just as things seem particularly grim, Georgiana falls in love with the handsome politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The two engage in a steamy love affair which the Duke soon discovers and determines to do everything in his power to destroy.

The film, based on a true story, is an excellent portrayal of a time long before women could fathom having the right to vote, much less divorce an unwilling husband. It also demonstrates a society in which it was acceptable for men to rape and beat their wives with a stick, the only stipulation being that it was no thicker than their thumb.

The Duchess was directed by Saul Dibbs, who has done three other films, including Easy Money. While Knightley is probably best known for her portrayal of Elizabeth Swan, other recent films include Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. Fiennes has played a number of roles, including Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movie series.

Overall, I felt that The Duchess was a wonderful yet heart wrenching depiction of a woman who wanted it all and was destined for disappointment. The main character had me rooting for her until the end, even while I knew society would never let her win. Georgiana’s character is admirable even as she becomes, as she says, a prisoner in her own home. She is never afraid to give the Duke a piece of her mind.

I loved how every aspect of the film had me feeling as if I was right there in the 18th century. I especially enjoyed the elegant and elaborate costumes worn by the actors. In nearly every scene, Knightley wears a garment beautiful enough that, were I given the opportunity, I would wear no matter how inappropriate it may be to the present time period.

I also found the complexity of the characters very intriguing. Toward the end of the film, Fiennes turned his character into a man I wasn’t sure whether to hate or pity when he tells Georgiana, “I love you in the way that I understand love.” Even Bess, a character I despised for her disloyalty to her friend, found a way to redeem herself later on.

While it is very difficult to find anything to criticize in this film, I will say that there could have been more clarity in this beginning. We aren’t given a real reason as to why the Duke has decided to marry Georgiana other than her mother telling him they have a good track record for breeding males. We also see that Charles Grey and Georgiana have met before her marriage, yet we have no idea how well they know each other or when they met.

Ultimately, my impression of the film was very positive. The Duchess was an excellent reminder of how far women have come from a time when marriage was often based on familial or societal obligation and rarely on love. Aside from the fact that our clothes just aren’t as great as they were back then, the film definitely made me appreciate being a woman in the 21st century.

Overall, this is a definite must-see for those looking for a social commentary on women’s rights or if you just want to see Keira Knightley and Dominic Cooper get it on.

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About Christy Shuler