By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer of HeidiTown.com It’s no secret – I am a fan of the period movie. Marie Antoinette was my favorite movie of 2006, and recently my husband pointed out that there are very few period movies I don’t like. I quickly reminded him of my illustrious opinions of Atonement, a period piece and Oscar nominated movie I intensely disliked.
I was able to see a last minute pre-screening of The Duchess, and I knew very little about the film or the true story of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. Keira Knightley portrays the Duchess, who was married at age 17, to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). The movie begins at Georgiana’s family estate where the audience becomes painfully aware the marriage has been arranged by Georgiana’s mother and the Duke’s handlers.
At first Georgiana is delighted, but this quickly turns to disappointment as it becomes apparent the two are not a good match. The Duke is single-mindedly set on having a boy and as the years pass the Duchess gives birth to girl after girl. Despite having gained the disdain of her husband, Georgiana becomes a popular socialite on the London scene. She becomes a fashion trendsetter and active campaigner for the Whig party, though women wouldn’t get the vote in England for another hundred years.
The cinematography of The Duchess sets the tone of the story. The camera often pans slowly across elaborate scenes depicting the excesses of the day, and yet there is always a grayish hue to the otherwise lavish scenes. It is as if the director is giving us a glimpse into the reality of Georgiana’s position; in spite of the wealth and privilege her status provides she is married to a man who does not love her and who eventually takes a live-in mistress (Hayley Atwell, most recently in Brideshead Revisited).
Keira Knightley received accolades for her role in Atonement, but I thought she was better in this movie. Georgiana was a complex woman in a time when women were considered and treated as one-dimensional creatures. Knightley is able to portray the multi-faceted personality of the Duchess and make the character relatable to the modern-day woman.
Much has been made of the fact that Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire’s story has similarities to that of Princess Diana (1961-1997). In fact, the two women are related. Diana, Princess of Wales, was a descendant of Georgiana’s brother, the 2nd Earl Spencer. Though some parallels do exist between the lives of these two woman, Keira Knightley has stated that the film has not intentionally tied the stories together. Even Amanda Foreman, the author of the book on which the movie is based has spoken out against the gossip trying to connect the movie to Diana. Still, it is impossible not to recognize similarities in the lives of the two women; each was unwittingly thrust into the public eye, each became an icon of fashion and eventually each became embroiled in very public marital troubles.
Although Keira Knightley performs well, this movie leaves much to be desired. Ralph Fiennes uptight portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire sums up my opinion of this movie – stuffy. It is an adaptation of a biography, not a novel, and therefore it is simply the rather straightforward story of a life and not a particularly significant life (from an historical perspective). Georgiana Cavendish was the flavor of her day, but in reality, she was just another socialite. It is an interesting portrait of how woman were viewed and treated in 18th Century England, but otherwise The Duchess did not really impress me. If you enjoy period pieces, I’d recommend waiting until it comes to DVD.
Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is a writer living in Northern Colorado with her husband, feisty cat and clever German Shepherd. She is a contributing writer at the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor, as well as co-owner of Ryan Schlaefer Fine Furniture, Inc. available at the Denver Design District. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Heidi has a B.A. in Political Science from Western Washington University. She has always loved movies, books and food; she explores all three at www.HeidiTown.com.