Movie Review: “The Duchess” Rules

September 30, 2008  

By Christy Vutam
cvutam@smu.edu

“The Duchess”
A-

“The Duchess” is a beautiful movie to look at, which is good, because it has a hard story to tell.

Based on Amanda Foreman’s best-selling biography, the movie depicts the brilliant but unhappy life of the 18th century English aristocrat Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley). In 1774, she married the older, distant William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire.

A century removed from women’s suffrage, Georgiana was a woman ahead of her time. She was an active political campaigner, a celebrated beauty and a socialite.

Part of the intended experience comes from watching the movie in the 21st century. In fact, the movie’s dialogue is keen to point out the injustice that people today would certainly call injustice, which begs the question: were people aware of such injustice, or did they accept it as a part of their lot in life?

At any rate, it’s hard to fathom how a woman who was obviously influential be dominated and abused, and it’s even harder to imagine men and women all standing idly by while a woman is screaming out for help in her own house.

For all of her celebrity and charisma, Georgiana was a prisoner in her own home. The juxtaposition of her power and helplessness amid director Saul Dibb’s splendidly lavish settings makes for great cinema.

Interestingly, the movie puts forth observations as to why women were limited for so long, all playing on the aspect of women as the weaker gender. There’s the general physicality difference, which becomes a plot point in the movie. There’s also the idea that women can be manipulated by men because of their attachment to their children.

Is Georgiana a weaker human being because she chooses her children over a chance at real love and general happiness? Are men, in turn, stronger because they’re more heartless than women are?

Well, one man is heartless, anyway – the ultra-powerful 5th Duke of Devonshire. The man appears to have only one thing on his mind – producing a son. However, Ralph Fiennes plays the Duke as a smart, calculated man who doesn’t need to appease anyone to get what he wants and knows it. There’s a level of evilness lurking in such a person; the Duke knows what’s right and wrong, but none of it matters to him since he makes the rules.

Knightley does a fine job as the strong-willed, celebrated Georgina, but was there ever any question? She has more presence in her pinkie than most of the current crop of female starlets have in their entire bodies.

Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey doesn’t have much to do other than be the good-looking symbol of happiness for Georgiana. Those moved to google “The Duchess’s” subject matter will quickly find out Grey wasn’t the obvious angel he’s made out to be in the movie.

But one has to keep coming back to the movie’s technical excellence. Dibb in his direction, Rachel Portman in her choices of music, Gyula Pados in his cinematography and Masahiro Hirakubo in his film editing all come together to put on a master class in how to make an exquisite epic. Thank goodness, they have a story worthy of their talents.

“The Duchess” opened Sept. 26. Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling and Dominic Cooper. Directed by Saul Dibb. Runs 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.

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