The Duchess – DVD Review
By Frankie Dees Dec 23, 2008, 12:19 GMT
Like her direct descendent Princess Diana, Georgina Duchess of Devonshire was a glamorous royal, much loved by the public. While her attractiveness and charm afforded her popularity, the intelligent and vulnerable Duchess was trapped within a loveless marriage to one of the country\'s richest men. Rebelling against the establishment, Georgina became active campaigner for the liberal party and in turn, romantically involved with Earl Grey, leading her through tragedy, self-discovery ...more
Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes headline 'The Duchess' in fine form. While the costume drama genre may be getting a bit tired lately, this pic is a well-made, sumptuous-looking example with all the requirements - passion, betrayal, heaving bosoms - checked off and then some.
I know, I know, Keira Knightley in a period costume drama - it's offbeat casting to be sure but let's give her a chance shall we? All kidding aside, I was a fan of Knightley's 'Pride & Prejudice', but I found 'Antonement' to be an enormously overrated bore so it was with some trepidation that I approached yet another costume drama centered around her.
Luckily, my worries proved to be unfounded as Knightley manages to bring her A-game to a role that the film would have lived or died on. Despite featuring many of the same themes, the cast does breathe some new life into the conventions with some great versatility on Knightley's part and a powerfully subtle and nuanced role from Fiennes.
This film is not concerned too much with politics, however, so those expecting this biopic to delve deeply into how Georgiana Spencer Cavendish became one of 18th-century London's most influential aristocrats and how she became a prominent player in the conservative Whig Party will probably be somewhat disappointed.
Despite some cursory mentions, this film is much more concerned Georgina's loveless marriage and suppressed lust.
To be fair, had she been in a supportive marriage, would she have been the trendsetter she was? Doubtful. The film starts in 1774 and 16-year old Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) has been arranged to marry William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), by her mother (Charlotte Rampling). At first excited about the marriage, she soon finds the Duke an icy, indifferent man only concerned with a male heir.
Making little effort to cover up his affairs with anybody that will have him from the maids up, the marriage becomes even more strained as she has only borne two daughters. With noting to devote her time to but politics, gambling and drinking, she becomes London's reigning socialite and eventually forms a friendship with Lady "Bess" Foster (Hayley Atwell) who attracts her attention when Bess turns down her husband.
When Georgiana discovers that Bess' husband beats her, she invites Bess to live with her only to find the plan backfire when Bess agrees to sleep with the Duke who can use his power to get her kids back.
As this war of the roses plays out, Georgiana turns back to her childhood friend Lord Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) who has now become a powerful political figure and whose youthful, personal fervor results in a lust and love she never knew with her husband.
This relationship doesn't sit well with the Duke, of course, so when he threatens to isolate her from her kids, she has little choice but to suffocate true love and make that sacrifice for her kids ("my life for theirs").
Director Saul Dibb made his feature debut with gangster pic 'Bullet Boy' after doing some docs for British TV and 'The Duchess' gives him his first chance to play in the big leagues.
Understandably dropping the grittiness of previous projects, 'The Duchess' unfolds with a meticulous sense of visual and emotional polish with elegant production design and expansive landscapes perfectly suited to Rachel Portman's poignant score.
All of that provides a realistically executed backdrop to the emotional action. Already discussed Knightley and Fiennes control most of the picture but solid work from Rampling as Georgiana's mother and Atwell as a friend both full of betrayal and loyalty fill out the small, concentrated cast with Grey proving the least interesting mostly due to the stock character role he gets handed (at least as portrayed in the film; Grey went on to become Prime Minister so he would have to be at least half-way interesting right?).
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and the scope image looks wonderful with the painfully recreated 18th-century production design being a marvel. Special Features include a 23 minute 'Making Of' featurette with the usual cast/crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and some tidbits from historians.
'Georgiana in Her Own Words' is a look at Amanda Foreman who wrote the biography the film was based on and 'Costume Diary' takes a look at the costumes from designer Michael O' Connor.
The pic is a mostly-effective effort driven by fine performances from Knightley and Fiennes and great tech efforts by all involved. Some might be disappointed that the bio-pic shoves the politics (and the gambling and drinking for that matter) aside in lieu of more standard romantic themes but I had little complaints. If costume dramas are your thang, this is an easy recommend.