Sunday, 2 November 2008
The problem with historical films is that while it’s relatively easy to recreate how people looked back then, it’s a whole lot harder to recreate how they thought. The Duchess is a rare attempt to provide a bit of insight into what was running through the minds of those well-dressed and (by the standards of the time) insanely wealthy types so beloved of costume dramas, and it turns what would otherwise have been a lightweight piece of well-costumed fluff into something that puts a bit of meat onto history’s bones. Still in her teens when wed to the extremely rich and powerful Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), Georgina Spencer (Keira Knightley) soon discovers that her husband really only wants one thing from her: a son to carry on the family line. When she turns out to be very good at providing daughters, his attention eventually wanders to her best friend, the recent divorcee Lady Bess Spencer (Hayley Atwell). Unfortunately for Georgina, her attempts to take a lover of her own (Dominic Cooper) are far less socially acceptable...
On the surface this is yet another tale of true love denied by a society bound by unfeeling rules and so on. But while Knightley (who gives one of her better performances as a young woman trapped by her situation) does get to wear a lot of stunning costumes while wandering through some amazing examples of 18th century architecture while waiting to snog her lover, the real centre of interest in this film is The Duke himself. Rather than being a cartoon villain for our heroine to rail against, he’s shown as a man almost as trapped by his role as Georgina is in hers, forced into situations he has little interest in and compelled to act in a certain (usually cruel) way for appearances sake. Fiennes all but makes him a tragic figure, which isn't bad considering he's playing a man who moves his lover into the house he shares with his wife; his performance makes The Duchess far more thoughtful than the average be-wigged costume drama
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #438)