The Duchess: A Review

A stunning contribution to the complex genre of period cinema, The Duchess, is a visual feast, fashionably presented by Saul Dibb. It makes you wonder if one could be an embodiment of everything taboo and yet be a worn out traditionalist?

Staunchly limited to its own timeline, devoid of any allusions to present ideals, The Duchess is a movie about a contrary woman, Georgiana Cavendish who has the ability to break free but flutters back to submission after failed attempts at exercising the stumps of the wings that were clipped at her birth. Slipping back into her corsets, Keira Knightley, as the Duchess of Devonshire dazzled and beguiled her audience while Ralph Fiennes, the Duke of Devonshire straight-jacketed his stage emotions in order to do his stoic character justice. Haley Atwell as Lady Elizabeth (Bess) Foster tempered her amazing screen presence to befit her role, Charlotte Rampling, portraying Lady Spencer, delivered a wonderfully controlled performance and Dominic Cooper, alias Charles Grey came of age in this beautiful film.

Forced to transform from a dreamy sixteen year old into a woman reconciled or at the very least resigned to her fate, trapped in a loveless marriage, The Duchess attempts to capture the advent of Georgiana’s fabled resistance to private and public demons unleashed by the irksome institution of obligation and appearances. Deprived of love, of freedom, of friendship and of loyalty in her personal life, Georgiana became the English society’s darling, seeking unencumbered adulation and affection from this less unwieldy faction.

Scandalous, a skilled and charming raconteur, fashionable, a political aficionado, a chronic gambler, Georgiana liked to shock and thus became a social marvel. In all probability the effort invested into these dalliances helped squash the pain that plagued her. Dominated and torturously brought to heel by a pitiless, feckless, wintry husband, betrayed by her only companion Lady Elizabeth Foster and forced to protect her lover’s interest by giving him up, Her Grace had an eventful existence marred by the patriarchal nature of society. Held prisoner by her own contradictory desires and commitments, Georgiana is held to ransom by the times and her circumstances and disabuses the notion of privilege.

Scratching at the gilt, washing away the jewel toned murals, shredding stuffy portraits and sneaking under elaborate powdered wigs, The Duchess supplies a devastating, disenchanting view of the life of the nobility of yester years.  It is an assessment of a life that is coveted by those on the outside and the same is inexorable yet excruciating for those who were born to it. Without relinquishing its focus on Georgiana, The Duchess fleetingly yet vividly sketches the lives of the Duke of Devonshire, Lady Elizabeth Foster and Charles Gray.

The enthralling and borderline appalling draft of relations and emotions that zinged about madly in the limited space conceded to nobility may weigh down the narrative but supplies valuable dimensions to the storyline and tugs at heartstrings and wrenches at the hair on the viewers’ head as they struggle through the feral tangles of duty, love, compulsion, motivation, aggression, passion and most importantly, choices that finally determine the fate of this web.

The Duchess does not dare confuse cinematographic brilliancy with the bleakness of the then society. What makes the movie a blinding success is the clever web of characters, place, time, ambitions, prejudices and the psychology of human foibles that does diabolic justice to the societal landscape of the 18th Century.

Intimate, impenitent and brazen, The Duchess is a visual tour de force alive with all the ingredients required to lavishly populate a costume drama. Astonishing cinematography by Gyula Pados paired with an evocative soundtrack by Rachel Portman, makes this movie based on Amanda Freeman’s book come alive. A mature portrayal by Knightly, a passively aggressive approach adopted by Fiennes and profound performance by Atwell allows the viewer to experience the tragedies of a multitude of lives.

A fair warning, the impact of The Duchess doesn’t fade with the end credits. It’s merely a prelude to its historical basis. Mostly faithful to what truly transpired in the lives of the aforementioned, The Duchess whets ones appetite and piques the viewer’s interest. With the least bit of effort one can trace the legacy that these complex characters left in their wake. The Duchess launches the viewer into a genealogical exploit that dates from the 1700s to the present day.

Anandi Bandyopadhyay