Based in fact, The Duchess tells the story of Georgiana (played by Keira Knightley), a young naïve 17-year-old who catches the eye of the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Unprepared for all that marriage entails, Georgiana knows her duty is to provide a male heir, but she’s also swept up into the idea of a happy marriage. At first, she’s under the impression her husband loves her but quickly learns otherwise when her husband spends very little time with her. Instead, she is used merely as a mother figure, expected to raise the Duke’s out-of-wedlock daughter, Charlotte. Six years later, we find she becomes a mother to two of her own daughters.
It’s in these early years of marriage Georgiana crosses paths with the passionate politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a man she once knew before she was married. She also befriends Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell), a woman with a complicated marriage. Charles is untouchable to Georgiana, who knows her place and what is required of her. Elsewhere, Elizabeth receives an invitation into their home as Georgiana’s friend only to eventually become another affair in her husband’s long string of conquests.
For all of its sophisticated beauty, I wish this period film had toned down what I can only imagine was its pursuit of being “shocking.” Had it done so, I think The Duchess would have shined even more. As it is, this is still a surprisingly excellent character drama – particularly because of Keira Knightley as Georgiana. The entire cast can be applauded as well; there isn’t a weak link among them. Among all the familiar faces, however, it is still Knightley who really “carries” the film. Her performance is anything but one-dimensional. She makes Georgiana beautiful, fierce, strong and miserable in one fell swoop. The contrast and transformation from happy, naïve and carefree to resigned and disillusioned are brilliantly timed.
Though the script takes some unnecessary liberties, no one can deny this production’s exquisite beauty. I do believe this viewing was only my second, and while watching every scene unfold, I was blown away by the designers’ achievements. The sweeping estate landscapes are only the beginning, back dropping what is a gorgeous period drama. Every costuming detail is a wonder to behold with every ensemble Keira wears breathtaking. I was impressed with the “light” (the general sense the filming itself affected vs. a darker mood) the drama continued to give the viewer in spite of the progressively dark themes.
I also appreciated the heartwarming ways Georgiana loves her children and the sacrifices she makes to ensure their happiness which is a major theme in the film. The film’s primary theme though is perhaps the loss of freedom. Optimism is something Georgiana begins with only to experience crushing life blows. The film focuses on her growth as a person, a mother and a leading woman of society. It’s a formula that works for this story. It’s nice too that while the ending is anything but traditional, the script does allow the viewer to hope Georgiana finds a sliver of happiness again. Masterfully told and acted, The Duchess is Georgian era bliss at its most masterful and emotionally shattering for those willing to overlook its flaws.
The Duchess is available to buy on DVD or rent on Amazon Video.
Content Note: there is a brief instance of nudity and a marital rape plus a wedding night consummation scene that’s somewhat awkward and one additional sex scene. There’s also a scene between two women during which one woman “pretends” to be another woman’s eventual lover. The film is rated PG-13.
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.
I have loved none but you.”
(*The early scenes between Georgiana and Charles are lovely.)
Photos: BBC Films
Looking for more period dramas? Browse our archives (sorted by era) to see what else we’ve reviewed and visit our Film archives for the rest of our film reviews.
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