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DUCHESS, THE(director/writer: Saul Dibb; screenwriters: Jeffrey Hatcher/Anders Thomas Jensen/based on the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman; cinematographer: Gyula Pados; editor: Masahiro Hirakubo; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Keira Knightley (Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire), Ralph Fiennes (the Duke of Devonshire), Charlotte Rampling (Lady Spencer), Dominic Cooper (Charles Grey, Earl Grey), Hayley Atwell (Lady Elizabeth Foster), Simon McBurney (Charles James Fox), Eva Hrela (Charlotte); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Gabrielle Tana/Michael Kuhn; Paramount Vantage; 2008-UK/Denmark/USA)
“Underwhelming but serviceable well-crafted 18th-century English period piece costume drama with modern feminist flavorings.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Underwhelming but serviceable well-crafted 18th-century English period piece costume drama with modern feminist flavorings. Saul Dibb (“Bullet Boy”) is director and cowriter with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen. It’s based on the 1998 best-seller Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman.

It covers some twenty years in the life of Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), who many in our age refer to as the “It Girl,”–supposedly a direct ancestor to Princess Di. In 1774 when she’s 17, Georgiana’s practical minded stern mum, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), arranges for her to marry a much older man, the fabulously wealthy and powerful 5th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes). The exuberant Georgiana is at first pleased with the marriage, but the glum hubby is one cold fish who prefers the company of his dogs and shows little interest in Georiana other than she provide him with a son–something he obsesses over as his primary duty as duke. Their lovemaking is mechanical, providing her with little joy. But she hardly evokes pity when she can still take satisfaction in living in fairy-tale opulence, in her so-called gilded cage.

Georgiana is soon aware that hubby fools around with other women. The duke even has the young daughter, Charlotte (Eva Hrela), he sired with a recently deceased chambermaid, live in the castle. The sympathetic Georgiana adopts her. After six years Georgiana disappoints hubby by giving birth to two daughters and has two male babies who were stillborn.

The duchess finds joy in living a rich life and knowing that she excels in the public spotlight, creating the fashion trend with dresses she designs–thereby becoming a hit with the society crowd. Her public support of Whig Party leader Charles Fox (Simon McBurney) and his handsome protege, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), gives the wealthy activist a great voice in party matters.

When Lady Elisabeth Frost (Hayley Atwell), an abused woman, is abandoned by her husband, Georgiana gets her a permanent invite to her home. Which prompts her hubby to openly have an affair with her and make her his mistress. It leads to a bolder Georgiana reacting to her loveless marriage by out-drinking most of the aristocratic men, gambling, taking a lover of her own–the future prime minister, Charles Grey, having a lesbian fling with Lady Elisabeth, flirting with scandal and helping to sweep in forward-thinking changes in the country by being an influential part of the Whig Party.

It’s the kind of picture that the Masterpiece Theater crowd and admirers of Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings would tend to favor. I found it pleasing to look at, but more difficult to get involved with its inert dramatics.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”