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The Duchess

So last week, I reviewed “Appaloosa,” and focused on the misogyny I found there.   And this week, I watched “The Duchess,” which has to be the most feminist movie to come out this year, and not a bad film, to boot.   Dear reader, what must you be thinking?   That I’ve accepted a grant from the National Organization of Women, or some such group?  I swear to you, I have not.   There’s just not much else playing in the small town where I live (if it were up to me, I would be reviewing “Ghost Town.”   But it played for about 30 seconds at the multiplex and then was gone, gone, gone until DVD) and I’m not about to review a movie about a talking Taco Bell mascot.  I have standards. 

So “The Duchess.”   It’s a movie about sex, and politics, and sexual politics, but really, it’s a movie about oppression.   It is the story of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who lived in Georgian England, a period when women were essentially treated as commodities by men, who would not allow them to vote for another hundred years.   It’s important that “The Duchess” gets its period right, as this is the story of a woman in her circumstances, not simply a woman and her circumstances.   But I’m no historian, so I can’t judge the accuracy of this depiction of Georgian England.   All I can say is that the costumes looked fantastic.  

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, and, as usual, seems quite comfortable in fantastic costumes.   The entire movie is told from her perspective and there are hardly five minutes when she is not onscreen; it takes a certain caliber of actress to maintain that kind of focus, and Knightley does so admirably.   And yet there were certain moments in certain scenes in which she ought to have shined, and only glimmered.   Emma Thompson she isn’t.   Ralph Fiennes (whose name, for some reason I can’t remember, is supposed to be pronounced “Rafe Fines”) plays the Duke of Devonshire, and it’s his performance that led me to see that this could be a movie about more than woman’s rights.   He’s a sexist pig, for sure, but Fiennes plays him with a certain dullness of spirit that reminded me that oppression not only harms the oppressed, but the oppressor as well.   

The Duke and Duchess get married early in the film, and he demands two things of her: loyalty, and a son.   He is distant, aloof; when Knightley complains to her mother (played by Charlotte Rampling, in one of the standout supporting performances in the film,) “he never talks to me,” mother responds “Why, whatever would you talk about?”  and encourages her that, once she bears a son, the sex may not get better, but it will become less frequent.   Alas, both of her first two children are daughters,  and the Duke treats her as if she’s breached a contract.   More and more openly, he turns to other women, including, finally, Knightley’s best friend, Lady Foster (Hayley Atwell) who becomes a surrogate wife, much to Knightley’s chagrin.   Knightley turns to her mother for help, and her mother tells her she must simply be a better wife, and win her husband back.    This is where it struck me just how completely women were treated like commodities in that era.   If I decide I like McDonald’s hamburgers better than Burger King’s, it’s Burger King’s job to win me back, and no claims on BK’s part of betrayal or unfaithfulness make any sense at all.  So it is for Knightley.  

Of course, she’s not all that interested in winning him back, and would rather spend her time with a certain Mr. Grey (Dominick Cooper,) who actually makes her happy.   This is unacceptable to the Duke, who thinks turnabout is anything but fair play.   And, because he is male, a Duke, and the most powerful man in the House of Lords, he is able to –almost effortlessly – back her into a corner where she must choose between her own happiness and the happiness of her children. 

Director Saul Dibb handles a large span of time and a multitude of supporting characters with ease and simplicity, and “The Duchess” is adequately filmed and exquisitely costumed.  Knightley is fine, Fiennes a bit more than fine, but, as is often the case in period pieces, it’s the supporting cast that really shines here.   “The Duchess” is an absorbing and authentically emotional film, and probably will make several Top 10 lists at the end of the year.   


  • to women, all women, but especially feminists.
  • To fans of period drama, and Keira Knightley, and the common conjuction of the two. 

Not Recommended

  • If you wanted to see “Appaloosa,” but it was sold out.

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2 Responses

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  1. Pam said

    I really like your reviews. I think this one needs a correction. Charlotte Rampling is amazing but you have her playing two characters in this film which seems unlikely. Perhaps Lady Spencer is a different actress?

  2. Oops! You’re right, Pam. I got mixed up on which Lady was which. Charlotte Rampling plays Lady Spencer, Georgianna’s mother, and Hayley Atwell played Lady Foster, her best friend. Both were great supporting performances. Thanks for catching that!

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