The Duchess

2008, Movie, PG-13, 110 mins

Review

DUCHESS, THE
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Inspired by Amanda Foreman's biography Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, a popular and a critical success, this serviceable costume drama covers 20 years in the life of a woman many today refer to as the "It Girl" of Georgian England, an 18th-century fashion-plate and influential public figure whose celebrity couldn't entirely disguise her unhappy marriage.

England, 1774. Seventeen-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) is thrilled to learn that her sternly pragmatic mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), has brokered her marriage to the severely handsome William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes), the 5th Duke of Devonshire, a considerably older man whom Georgiana has met only twice (such is nature of true love, Lady Spencer disingenuously remarks). But Georgiana's happiness quickly fades after her wedding. William is cool to the point of cruelty, shows no interest in so much as speaking with his wife (he much prefers the company of his dogs) and their lovemaking is roughly unromantic and perfunctory: He wants a male heir and nothing more. Georgiana also realizes she's not the only woman her husband takes to bed, and he soon brings Charlotte (Eva Hrela), the young daughter he sired with a recently deceased chambermaid, to live at Cavendish House. Georgiana adopts the child and, six years later, bears two daughters of her own; to the Duke's great consternation, Georgiana's two male babies were stillborn. The duchess is dazzling in public: Her gowns (many self designed), hats and hair styles are hugely influential among society women and sketch artists (forerunners of the papparazzi who dogged Georgina's descendant, Princess Diana) capture her image as she gambles and attends performances of School for Scandal while 18th-century Walter Winchells comment on her every move in the broadsheets. But aside from her beloved daughters and public appearances on behalf of Whig Party leader Charles Fox (Simon McBurney) and his handsome protege, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), Georgina's sole happiness is the time she spends with her best friend, Lady Elisabeth Frost (Hayley Atwell), an unhappy woman who comes to live at Dorchester House after being abandoned by her abusive husband. But William soon takes Elisabeth for his lover and forces Georgiana -- a privileged woman who, as Lady Spencer is quick to remind her, has few real options in life -- to live in what amounts to a de facto polygamous marriage. Georgiana grows bolder as her unhappiness -- as well as her drinking and gambling -- increases, and she risks both public scandal and the Duke's vindictive wrath when she takes a lover of her own.

Director Saul Dibb's adaptation lacks the imaginative fancy of Sofia Coppola's 2006 MARIE ANTOINETTE, another handsomely costumed portrait of a woman suffocated by superficially enviable circumstances, but it's a gorgeous production that boasts a beautiful leading lady, handsome locations (nicely captured by cinematographer Gyula Pados), drop-dead costume design and the standard-issue tropes of a PG-13 rated bodice ripper. Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Dibb's screenplay is functional if not particularly distinguished, but it manages to find a scrap of sympathy for the odious Duke: Wryly played by Fiennes, he's a stern, unloving man with no sense of humor who's all the more amusing because of it. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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