I’m ordinarily not a big fan of period pieces, but I do like Keira Knightley, so I was anxious to see The Duchess, a film about the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Prior to watching the film, I read a little bit about the real Georgiana, and thought that she sounded like a very interesting person, a strong-willed woman far ahead of her times in terms of political and social activity. Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to focus more on Georgiana’s unconventional home life with her husband and his mistress, which ironically made for a very conventional movie.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Knightley stars as Georgiana, the eponymous Duchess of Devonshire. She attained her title and status by marrying the Duke of Devonshire (played by Ralph Fiennes) when she was just 16-years-old. Georgiana mistakenly assumed the match was made from love; instead, the Duke was only interested in siring a male heir for his vast property and fortunes.
Georgiana soon grows accustomed to her husband’s cold ways, and after learning that the Duke is an unrepentant adulterer who expects her to take care of his daughter born out of wedlock, Georgiana loses all illusions about her marriage vows. She then chooses to amuse herself with parties and gambling, disregarding popular opinion about her behavior.
While on holiday in Bath, she meets Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), and takes an immediate liking to the woman. Lady Bess, currently estranged from her abusive husband, has nowhere to stay, so Georgiana wrangles an invitation out of the Duke. This turns out to be a grave mistake that will have lasting consequences, as the Duke almost immediately begins an affair with Lady Bess. Even after Georgiana discovers the affair, the two carry on right under her nose, and from that point forward, the marriage essentially consisted of three people.
Lady Bess apologizes to Georgiana for the treachery, but justifies it by saying that it’s the only way she can ever see her children again, as the Duke has enough power to force her husband’s hand in the matter. To help ease Georgiana’s pain, Lady Bess arranges an opportunity for Georgiana to liaise with her own lover, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). However, when the Duke finds out about Grey, he orders that the affair cease immediately, otherwise he’ll take Georgiana’s children away from her.
Georgiana complies with the Duke’s wishes, and lives the rest of her life under the same roof with the Duke and Lady Bess, even going so far as to give them her blessings to marry each other after her death.
My Reaction: I’d viewed trailers of The Duchess that seemed to imply the film would be more about Georgiana’s political activism than about her home life. As a result, I found myself waiting for the film to take that political turn, and when it didn’t, I was a bit disappointed with the result. Sure, the ménage à trois was interesting in its own right, but I didn’t think the setup warranted coverage for the entire film.
The performances of the three main characters were pretty good, which made the film watchable despite a few slow spots in the plot. Ralph Fiennes played the Duke as a despicable, unrepentant, selfish jackass, while Hayley Atwell managed to make Lady Bess sympathetic even though she was “the other woman”. Knightley was also likable in the title role, which was important since she was in nearly every scene. Again, though I didn’t approve of everything the Duchess did, at least I liked her and cared about what happened to her.
Overall, The Duchess was a decent period drama that tells an interesting story, albeit in a conventional way. There aren’t really any surprises here, and no breathtaking cinematography or anything like that to make this work memorable. I give the film 3 stars out of 5.