The Duchess (2008)


Overall, while period pictures or costume dramas have always been popular (Ben Hur, Spartacus, etc.), with very few exceptions-- including Cleopatra and Out of Africa-- it's been a largely male dominated genre. History after all begins with the letters H-I-S but over the past decade and most notably since Shekhar Kapur's brilliant original Elizabeth--which launched the career of the then unknown Cate Blanchett-- we've begun to catch a glimpse of the past from a feminine and/or (more often than not) feminist point-of-view.

Whether it was in Sofia Coppola's controversial re-imagining of Marie Antoinette based on the book by Antonia Fraser or in more conventional adaptations such as this year's The Other Boleyn Girl, history has suddenly become "herstory" and British director Saul Dibb's brilliant new film, The Duchess is not only the latest entry but one of the best since Blanchett portrayed the Virgin Queen in 1998.

Of course, by now we've all been presented with the unfavorable circumstances of women being bartered and legally contracted into marriage or traded as though they were cattle for their ability to produce a male heir. Not to mention, we're familiar with the sad truth that one must either marry well or become a spinster governess in both the films and the novels of Austen and the Bronte sisters. Still, The Duchess manages to drive this home even further in its extremely effective structure by presenting this situation nearly completely from our heroine's point-of-view.

While admittedly one could say that Keira Knightley has agreed to star in one too many period pieces (coming off the heels of Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and the Pirates of the Caribbean films among others), she turns in her best work in her most mature performance to date as Georgiana Spencer.

Spirited and beautiful-- the natural people-pleaser who'd always been the center of attention-- Georgiana became, as Paramount Vangage's press release notes, England's first authentic "It Girl." Often dubbed the Empress of Fashion, Georgiana is plunged into the spotlight from relative obscurity after her ambitious mother, the Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) negotiates the socially advantageous marriage with the middle aged Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) with the promise that her teenage daughter will bear him a son.

Cold, ill-mannered, and far more at ease seducing maids and playing with his dogs than talking to his new young wife, as Georgiana's closest friend the Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Foster phrases it, it seems as though Fiennes' Duke is the only man in London not in love with his wife. Prone to leaving dinner parties filled with politicians as soon as he's finished eating or roughly handling his wife when fulfilling his procreational duties, the Duke quickly surprises Georgiana with the arrival of Charlotte, a daughter he'd fathered years earlier. While fortunately Georgianna takes to the young girl at once and becomes the mother the orphaned girl had always wanted, unfortunately for the Duke, she conceives and births two additional daughters and the pressure to produce a son drives their already strained marriage further apart.

Seeking solace in apparel she designs and in the company of others, she finds what she assumes will be a friend for life in the far worldlier but troubled Lady Elizabeth a.k.a. "Bess" (played by Hayley Atwell), who has suffered far more devastating crimes in her own marriage. Yet when the Duke makes a move on Bess, suddenly their friendship is jeopardized when initially a love triangle is formed, which grows into a quadrangle after Georgina discovers a passion of her own when she becomes reacquainted with a youthful crush, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper).

Fresh out of Cambridge and climbing the ranks in Parliament, Grey's devotion to changing England for the better with the Whig Party inspires Georgiana to get involved and as noted by Paramount, "determined to be a player in the wider affairs of the world, she proved that she could out-gamble, out-drink and outwit most of the aristocratic men that surrounded her." However, when she tries to carve out a piece of her own romantic happiness, everything comes tumbling down as the Duchess is forced to choose between duty, family and love much "like her direct descendant Princess Diana."

As Knightley told Josh Patner in the November issue of Glamour Magazine, she was fascinated by the prospect of playing someone so complicated, describing the Duchess as the type of individual who "can be lonely in a huge group of people" which reminded me of her French contemporary, Marie Antoinette ("Keria for Real," pg. 230). And since as the title connotes, it is the Duchess with whom we identify throughout the film--based on Amanda Foreman's award-winning and critically acclaimed biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire-- Knightley gives her character her all as we feel her small joys and pain throughout.

And while on the first viewing, it's Knightley's show all the way and I'd be extremely surprised if this didn't garner her at least an Academy Award nomination, in viewing it a second time, I was struck by the entire cast, most notably Hayley Atwell. Following up a role in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, the icy and unsuccessful period piece Brideshead Revisited and an excellent Irish sleeper How About You-- 2008 is Atwell's year for dynamic supporting work and she's truly a marvel in a role that is easily as complicated as our leading lady's.

And rebounding from the disastrous Mamma Mia! in a role that finally did justice to his phenomenal History Boys buzz, Dominic Cooper makes a dishy young hearthrob but it's the former hearthrob Ralph Fiennes who definitely surprises. While not as easily evil as his work as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter-- especially since as loathsome as the Duke is, he is also a product of his time-- Fiennes shows a quiet, powerful, and off-putting side in a commanding portrayal of a man who rarely seems comfortable in his own skin and, much like his wife, always gives off the impression he'd rather be somewhere else entirely.

Penned by the director, Casanova screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and After the Wedding's Anders Thomas Jensen, this sumptuously ravishing period piece is far more than a deceptively pretty little picture. Additionally, it manages to avoid the surface level trappings of its genre. And as a nice change of pace to the testosterone-fueled historical epics like Braveheart and Gladiator, by offering a look at a time and place from a woman's perspective, it helps to breathe much needed life and offer a more irresistible approach to a classical genre. One of the most impressive new films of the fall, The Duchess is highly recommended, especially for mothers and their teenage daughters to see together to promote a worthwhile dialogue about gender and history.