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The Duchess (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Anyone who doesn’t believe that history repeats itself must see this film. It’s about Georgiana (Keira Knightley), the Duchess of Devonshire, whose life bears a remarkable parallel with that of her descendent, Princess Diana.

Beautiful with a sparkling personality, in 1774, when she was just 17 years-of-age, she was thrown into an arranged marriage with William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), her cold, cruel spouse. Told by a top flight cast that includes Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey, the man who stole Georgiana’s heart (and the man for whom the tea, Earl Grey, is named), Hayley Atwell as Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster, Georgiana’s best friend, and Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana’s mother, Lady Spencer, the direction by Saul Dibb is first rate.

And it would have to be because this could easily have dripped into a maudlin soap opera. But Dibb keeps things moving, although without the sparkling Knightley, this movie, based upon Amanda Foreman’s 1998 Best-selling book, “Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire,” (the marriage was also satirized in the famous 1777 play, “School for Scandal” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan) would have had a long uphill climb. She is in almost every scene and completely carries the film. I’ve seen most films in which she’s played, starting with “Bend it Like Beckham,” and she just gets better each time. She was the only thing I liked about “Atonement.”

Georgiana was a precursor of Princess Di, a “rock star,” if you will, before there was such a thing. She was a fashion trendsetter, with an impeccable sense of style. If she wore it, everyone followed. The crowds loved her. She was a force in the Whig party, campaigning 100 years before women got the right to vote in England. She was a 21st-Century woman trapped in the 18th-Century, a time when the man was truly ruler of the roost and the woman had no say in anything.

As such, she was also victim of the same thing that burdened the many wives of Henry VIII, trying to give the Duke a male heir. She bore daughters, but endured many miscarriages in her ultimately successful effort to satisfy the Duke’s requirements. The film barely alludes to the miscarriages.

She was only a teenager when she was committed by her mother to the arranged marriage to the Duke. She didn’t have any idea what she was in for. But she was doomed to a loveless marriage with a cold, dominating, powerful man. Worse, her best friend became the Duke’s mistress and Georgiana was forced to live in a remarkable ménage a trios for the rest of her life. Much later in the film, Georgiana ruminates, “I fear I’ve done some things in life too late, and others too early.” This is a great line and if she actually did say it, maybe this was the first incantation of the adage that we get old too soon and smart too late. What’s amazing is that Georgiana, the Duke, and Bess lived in this relationship for 25 years, until Georgiana’s death in 1806.

Fiennes gives a smashing performance as the Duke, who was probably the wealthiest and most powerful man in England after the King. Even though he is cruel and unsympathetic to Georgiana, a martinet in his own home, the way Fiennes plays him one gets the idea that maybe there is some feeling in the man, however deep and well-hidden. Fiennes gives an extraordinarily nuanced performance in capturing the complexity of the man.

Cinematographer Gyula Pados, production designer Michael Carlin, and costume designer Michael O’Connor, give star turns themselves, equal to those given by the actors, in their recreation of late 18th-Century British upper crust life. Even without the wonderful acting and direction, they make this film worth seeing.

This beautifully acted and directed film ranks with the best I've seen this year to date.

September 18, 2008