The Duke of Devonshire marries Georgiana Spencer with the hopes she would sire him a son. When she fails to do so, he grows disinterested and the two start to grow apart. While he keeps his times with lurid affairs, she becomes an icon to the people and grows into a legend.
It would almost seem Keira Knightley is typecasting herself. I assume if you need someone to put on a corset, take up an Old Country accent and work a period piece, you could make a worse choice. Knightley’s greatest performances have come in these period pieces, whether it is the fun Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or the fantastic one-two Joe Wright punch of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Following her fabulous work on the later two films, where even I said she would be served well by only appearing in Wright’s, she has developed into a spectacular character actress.
In The Duchess, Knightley portrays Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The film begins in much the same manner as Pride & Prejudice, with Georgiana an innocent fun loving girl who is swept off her feet by nobility. In much the same manner as Pride & Prejudice, she is able to maintain her fierce independence throughout much of the movie but The Duchess takes a darker path as it proceeds to break her character down until she is forced to submit to a lifestyle she eventually despises.
Georgiana was almost a precursor to the princesses of today’s society, debutantes who thrive in the public eye. It is not a surprise that one of her descendents would be Princess Diana Spencer, as the two shares an uncanny resemblance of traits. Georgiana was, by far, more popular to the people than her husband William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire. Her appearance at a political rally would guarantee giant crowds and the women were always watching her, basing their current trends on her dress and attire.
Georgiana was married to William (Ralph Fiennes) at a young age, for the sole reason of siring him a son. While her mother filled her head with ideas of love and romance, her life turned out to be nothing like that as her “Prince Charming” cared nothing for her and only had the one desire from the start. When she gave him only daughters, it strained their uneasy relationship even further. The two would move on to have affairs of their own, hers with an old acquaintance Charles Grey, who would serve as Prime Minister later in his life. William’s affair was with Georgiana’s best friend Elizabeth, further breaking her will and shattering her confidence.
I feel not enough time was taken showing her influence on the community who loved her so deeply. The movie would travel through many years, taking minor stops along the way during the more traumatic times of her life. Much was done to keep her character fresh and pure in the face of adversity, only darkening her by showing her sole affair, which was done in the name of love. The years of alcoholism, bulimia and drug use she partook to combat her growing depression were glossed over or ignored entirely, only showing one instance where it took over her character.
The acting in the movie was very good with Knightley growing into a more self assured talent. While she always seemed a bit afraid to let loose in earlier films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and even Pride & Prejudice, she broke out big time in Atonement and has followed that with another self assured performance here. Ralph Fiennes also was admirable in taking a character that was wholly unlikable and trying to add touches in his performance to try to show that William was more complex than the script allows him to be. The two deliver performances that play well off each other and never make the character’s seem like they were ever doing something you would consider unrealistic.
The script remains strong, playing with words throughout the story, yet never in a self aware way. At one point Georgiana scolds Elizabeth when her friend explains she is having the affair to allow William to help her regain custody of her children. Georgiana explains there is a limit to what you will do for your children. Later in the film, when Georgiana faces a difficult decision, with the fate of her own children at risk, it is clear that she understands the challenges her friend faced years before. It is a smart script and a solid portrayal of real people making real decisions, not just generic characters moving through a story.
The film would go on to win the Oscar for Costume Design, and it was well deserved. The costumes and sets were both spectacular. Michael O’Conner dresses all the characters in exquisite costumes and outfits them all with a precise, deft touch. There is a special feature on the DVD that mentions how they approached the characters, darkening their looks as they grew deeper into depression, which keeping their attire lighter while they were in happier times. With a character that was referred to as the “Empress of Fashion”, it was a place the filmmakers could not afford to drop the ball. O’Conner didn’t drop the ball and, in fact, ran it in for a touchdown. This is a beautiful picture and deserves the Oscar it was bestowed.
How Far She Went … Making the Dresses (22:50) – This is a pretty informative making of featurette that discusses everything from casting to set designs to the exquisite costumes. It is quite comprehensive but never gets boring. All the individuals involved in creating this film are spoken to and it is crisp and to the point.
Georgiana in Her Own Words (07:10) – Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, shares the letters she used, all written by Georgiana, to compose her book. She points out how the letters become less innocent and more confessional as she grew older. She also points out that the letters were edited by the owners of the letters, who crossed out specific parts and ripped out others.
Costume Diary (05:37) – This feature goes into detail the work put into the costume design of the film.