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An intriguing insight into what women of the time had to do to attain high stature, yet which afforded them no power.

DVD Review: The Duchess (2008)

Written by Pollo Misterioso

The Duchess is a movie about women. In fact, it is a movie about 18th century English women. But in no way is this movie specifically for women, although one might think differently. Based on a true story, The Duchess is an intriguing insight into what women of the time had to do to attain high stature, yet which afforded them no power.

Based on the true story of the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, and her time with the Duke of Devonshire, the screenplay comes from the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire written by Amanda Foreman. Most of the information that makes up the book comes from the letters that Georgiana wrote to her best friend Bess, who later became the Duchess of Devonshire herself, and to her mother.

Keira Knightley plays the lovely Georgiana, who at sixteen marries the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes. We are given a glimpse of the playful and charismatic side of her in the beginning of the film, but with her marriage engagement comes the responsibility and duty of a duchess—to provide a male heir.

Historically Georgiana was known for her political influence with the Whig Party and her colorful fashion sense, influencing the way women dressed and becoming a well-known celebrity. The beautiful costumes in the film make this film worth watching. With wig and dress changes in almost every scene, the Duchess’ wardrobe is overwhelmingly impressive. Again, by mere dress, it becomes easy to see her influence and stature in her society.

Not everything is as easy as it seems for Georgiana. In a struggle to give her husband a male heir, she gives birth to two daughters and takes in another daughter that is the Duke’s from another mistress. She learns quickly the ways of infidelity and when she brings Bess to live with them, Bess begins an affair with the Duke in order to get custody of her children. Fiennes is callous and cold as the Duke, but presents a man that personally lives a life of structure and rules; all of which Georgiana fail to accomplish.

In her personal battle between herself and her position, she falls in love with Charles Grey, played by Dominic Cooper, and begins seeing him secretly. When the Duke finds out, he orders her to stop, threatening to take away her children, but she is pregnant with Grey’s child. Even after supplying the Duke with a male heir and participating in acts that the Duke has also done, she struggles to gain power within her household, never able to impress the Duke.

But more than just a historical drama, this is a film about the struggle for power in a place where there was nothing for women to gain. Paralleled by the multiple layers that women wear, she is trapped in a position that seems commanding and influential, but personally she is shattered. Knightley commands the screen, not often with dialogue, but with facial expressions that expose the deep pain and struggle that she feels daily.

Georgiana was clearly a strong woman, one that dominated political and social circles, but lived a sad life. The different masks she wears for her public and private lives create a duality that is inspiring to watch, showing a true struggle that regains its own sense of power.

The DVD extras are interesting and very informative if you are interested in learning more on the subject. “Georgiana In Her Own Words” is a short featurette that shows her letters and examines her growth through her penmanship and content. “Costume Diary” is an interesting look at the costumes in the film. “How Far She Went…Making The Duchess” was my favorite extra, showing the real sets used, interviews with the cast and crew, and explains some of the hardships they went through in the making of the film.

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