Reviewer: Charity Bishop
It is only in recent years that women have been granted equal rights with men. For most of history, women were regarded as property to be used or abused at will. Numerous novelists from various time periods outline this sadly chauvinistic society, but even more profound are the true stories of women caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Some of them, like Katharine of Aragon, went down fighting while others, such as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, made the decision to conform, and lost their right to liberty in favor of placating their husbands. The Duchess is an exquisite costume drama that follows the life of the latter, unfolding a story of remarkable events in which one woman is left helpless in the wake of a male-dominated society.
The beautiful, stylish, passionate young Georgiana (Keira Knightley) has caught the interest of the formidable Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Preoccupied with his need for a male heir in order to maintain reasonable standing and respect in society, the Duke believes she will fill the role well and their marriage is brought about with much excitement on the part of Georgiana and her mother, the ambitious, social-climbing Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling). It does not take long for her marriage to sour, for she complains that her husband never wishes to talk with her, and they share no intimacies apart from the marital bed. Her mother reassures her this is normal and she will make other friends. The only thing she must do is provide the Duke with a son -- but two daughters are in his future, along with several miscarriages and stillborn boys. The Duke is furious with her failings and Georgiana is desperate for companionship, so she turns to the needy Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) for friendship.
Having left her abusive husband and been thus separated from her children, "Bess" is welcomed into their home and becomes Georgiana's shadow. Ever observant, she informs Georgiana that she suspects local rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) is secretly in love with the Duchess. At first Georgiana refuses to believe it, for they had no more than minor flirtations in their youth, but then as she campaigns for his political party and is forced to cross his path numerous times, she begins to wonder if his feelings are not reciprocated by her own. In the meantime, much as is his custom, her husband has strayed from their marriage bed, but this time it is not a local woman of the town, or one of the servant girls. It is Bess, and the emotional repercussions of his affairs, and Georgina's fight to maintain control of her household, will echo for eternity.
Audiences anticipating a story of mild to moderate melodrama will be surprised to learn that this is a very emotional, impacting story with numerous moral failings. The affair between the Duke and Bess Foster is well documented, as is the affair Georgiana conducted with Charles Grey. It's hard for me to judge this film separate from history, and so rather than condemn the actions of historical figures from the 1700's, I will say instead that filmmakers were a bit heavy handed in their choice of how to depict some of the worst moments of these relationships. Most women will be able to understand the fear Georgiana faces at being bedded by a man she does not even know without having to watch it. Often the visuals are rather jarring but the emotions involved are even more impacting and make you feel as though you saw much more than you actually did. There is a good point and a bad one to that genre of filmmaking, because on one hand we don't always have to watch what is happening, but on the other, overhearing it allows for prolonged auditory humiliation and horror. What am I talking about? How about the screams of the Duchess echoing through the house as her husband forces himself on her? Or watching her horrified expression at hearing pleasured noises coming from behind Bess's door?
There's no language or violence (Bess showcases a bruise that she claims came from her husband beating her with a stick) but sexual content is heavy. Georgiana's husband disrobes her on their wedding night, showing us hints of nudity, and what follows is an awkward, embarrassing consummation scene that is short but rather painful to watch. After a violent argument, the Duke storms into his wife's room and forces her onto a bed. We see them struggling briefly before her screams permeate the hall. It's apparent from her reaction what transpired, and a child results from it. Georgiana comes across a naked woman leaving her husband's room (brief backside nudity), and shares a fairly graphic, long, clothed sex scene with Charles. There's a spattering of "intercourse" related dialogue, but most disconcerting was a scene in which Bess comes on to Georgiana by pretending to be Charles. The length, intimacy, and reactions came across strongly as catering to a heavy-handed lesbian element.
Having said that, the film is quite remarkable in all other respects. Knowing almost nothing about Georgiana, I found that Knightley's very emotional, raw depiction of her was ultimately heart-wrenching. I will admit up front that I have always enjoyed watching that young actress, but never have been very inspired by her performance ... until now. Her Georgiana is extremely good, and actually brought me to tears on one occasion. The unfairness of her situation and the impossible impasse her husband maintained painted her as a very realistic, very wronged woman. Even though I morally disapprove of certain of her decisions, I can also somewhat understand them, which is a testament to both the strength of the screenplay and the cast, that they helped me see beyond the surface. Fiennes has always been a favorite of mine, both as a dashing hero and often as a scoundrel, and here he is complex and frustrating. The Duke is eternally bored, rather mean-spirited at times and yet also quite human, even remorseful for certain of his actions. It was a film that I cannot recommend due to its numerous inappropriate instances, but that also left me haunted by the past, and grateful to live in a modern society where there are no such things as arranged marriages.