The Duchess

   A little housekeeping first. As you probably know, AOL will stop hosting blogs at the end of this month. After some serious thought, I have decided that I want to continue doing this, so I will be moving.  I haven’t even begun researching my options yet, but I will let you know when and where I move.
   On to The Duchess:
   Eighteenth century England was not a time or place that afforded people much in the way of personal freedom. The British obsession with class was probably at its peak, and while this was a bawdier time than the later Victorian era, a scandal could result in some very real consequences for someone in the upper class.
   Based on a real story, The Duchess is about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, played with verve by Keira Knightley. Georgiana was a vivacious and smart girl of aristocratic family who takes the only means of upward social mobility open to her; she marries the Duke of Devenshire, played by Ralph Fiennes. It proves to be an unhappy match, however, when it becomes apparent to her that the Duke views her only as a means to give him an heir. He has no intention of being true or of even treating her with anything beyond the barest civility. When two daughters come in quick succession, matters get even worse.
  The performances here are universally excellent. Knightley plays Georgiana with a warmth that she often fails to bring to her roles, specifically her last role in a drawing room drama, Atonement. It’s a subtle performance too. You can see her disappointment in her face.
   Ralph Fiennes takes a role that in lesser hands would have been a mustache twirling villain and makes you feel a certain amount of sympathy for him. He is trapped by his social position as well. Older than his bride, he is under a great deal of pressure to produce an heir. This informs his every action. He goes about the business in an obtuse and inelegant fashion, using the cruelest threats to keep his young wife under control until a boy is born to them. He doesn’t want to be cruel to her, to crush her dreams and threaten to keep her from her children; he just doesn’t see any other way.
  I’m tempted to say that he is just as trapped as she is, but of course that’s not true. He is free to carry on affairs out in the open, including a longstanding relationship with Georgiana’s best friend, Bess Foster, who lived with them for years. He is able to imprison her in his sprawling mansion, keeping her away from friends and there is nothing she can do.
   It is a testament to her will and intelligence that she did eventually get something of the life she wanted, but one can’t help but wonder what she could have done if her life hadn’t been so circumscribed. What heights could she have risen to, had she had direct access to the levers of power? We’ll never know.
   The Duchess is a fine movie about an interesting if little known figure in history.


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October 2008
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