The Duchess

the duchess Keira Knightley

I had read many reviews of this film, some rather good, some rather bad, so I went to see this film with an open mind. That was two weeks ago, upon its release in France. Now I realize I shouldn’t tarry anymore in writing my review because this is not the kind of movie that will leave a very durable impression.

Not that it is bad, far from it. It has everything one expects from a period piece: the lavish costumes, the beautiful English country estates, the carriages, the obligatory shots of Bath. It is not visually stunning, but it looks good.

The cast is uneven. Ralph Fiennes (the Duke of Devonshire) again proves himself one of the most accomplished actors around these days. He makes the difficult character of the Duke more human, more interesting , more sympathetic than anyone else in the film.

Keira Knightley (the Duchess) doesn’t quite perform at the same level. She has developed the annoying trick of using her jaw, the most prominent feature in her face, to signal her character’s emotions. Jaw jutting forward means that we are dealing with one tough cookie. Jaw moving side to side indicates that some sharp repartee is coming our way. But this is not enough. She may cry, yell, whimper, but the emotion is missing.

As for Charlotte Rampling (Lady Spencer, the heroine’s mother) she is obviously here in the same capacity as Kristin Scott Thomas in The Other Boleyn Girl: she provides the prestigious older actress’s seal of approval.

What about historical accuracy? The movie purports to be based on Amanda Foreman’s acclaimed biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, but only a few trivia (those, I suppose, deemed the most titillating to a modern audience) remain.

The Duchess Keira KnightleyThis Georgiana, unlike the real one, doesn’t worry her pretty little head with literary endeavors. Georgiana’s novel, The Sylph, or her poetry are not mentioned at all. Her passionate involvement in politics gets no more than a nodding acknowledgment. There are only discrete allusions to what was the plague of Georgiana’s life: her ruinous gambling addiction.

What the film chooses to emphasize instead is the ménage à trois between the Duke, the Duchess and their common friend Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster (Hayley Atwell, quite good.) Here Georgiana is presented as outraged by the situation and resentful of it, probably to suit modern morality tastes, but in fact she was emotionally dependent on Bess, and a willing party to this arrangement.

The film makes motherhood the central issue in the lives of both Bess and Georgiana. It is certain that the latter was a loving parent, and that having to give up her adulterous child was heartbreaking to her, but I am far less persuaded in the case of Bess.

The Duchess Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley is too emaciated to credibly play an 18th century beauty, and Ralph Fiennes too old to play the Duke (who was 26 at the time of his marriage to Georgiana.) But this would be nothing if the screenplay were compelling. It is frustrating to watch Georgiana, a complex, intellectual, passionate, flawed character, thus turned into soap opera fodder.

It doesn’t help that the director seems to lack any sense of ridicule. It is difficult enough to imagine the phlegmatic Duke raping his wife, but here he does it without even losing his wig (for a moment I was reminded of the scene in the film Excalibur where a knight successfully copulates in full armor.) When Lady Spencer calls on her daughter after Georgiana has just given birth to her first child, the new mother is perfectly coiffed and dressed. For the record, the real Lady Spencer, far from being content with such cursory visits, would set up camp in her daughter’s bedroom for weeks on end upon the occasion of every laying-in.

So would I recommend this film? Yes, certainly, as light entertainment. But as a retelling of the life of the real Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, it fails. I am not sure it ever tried. A pity.

The Duchess Keira Knightley

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49 Comments to “The Duchess”

  1. dbe certification says:

    The film was ok not one of my favorites. For a film that is trying to depict a particular period in history I think they did a good job.

  2. awesome says:

    Keira Knightley is too emaciated to credibly play an 18th century beauty, BUT she is still a good actress.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Zadoc!

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  5. Macho Alfa says:

    Hello, I pretty much agree with everything you said its a great movie.

  6. Juan Jones says:

    Very informative post. Jazzy photos as well.

  7. club penguin says:

    It is good that you brought this up, Catherine. The few times G was received by MA in France, it is my impression that they had an amicable time together, sharing an interest in style and other things.

  8. Work At Home says:

    I wanted to see more of the politics of the time. that was the best part of the book. not sure what the point of the invented rape was, it was made clear she was chosen for dynastic reasons.

  9. work at home jobs says:

    Really nice review. I like to watch movie also the review.

  10. I really want to see this film. Thanks for taking the time to write

  11. Great overview. Your style of writing is really a joy to read.

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  16. Catherine Delors says:

    I have exactly the same impression, Elena. True, MA was interested in (and rather amused by) English customs. I also agree that the friendship, if any, was with Madame de Polignac, but it remained at a fairly superficial level of mutual goodwill. Though I remember reading in A. Foreman’s bio that Bess, always the little minx, caused some trouble there too…

  17. It is good that you brought this up, Catherine. The few times G was received by MA in France, it is my impression that they had an amicable time together, sharing an interest in style and other things. (MA was fascinated by English customs and fashions, such as tea-time and horse-racing.) However, G was not part of the Queen’s inner circle, and Bess Foster definitely was not, although the latter tried to convey the impression that she had special knowledge of MA’s private life, all based upon hearsay. G did try to help the Royal Family in their desperate time; I do not know how effective her efforts were, but at least she tried. But since MA did not like to hear about the doings of Catherine of Russia, I doubt that she would have been terribly close to G. G was probably better friends with Madame de Polignac. Are there any letters from Madame de Polignac preserved at Chatworth, I wonder? I’ll have to check somewhere….

  18. Sue says:

    This is a great post-I have had the book for Christmas and am addicted! I shall avoid the film, judging by this review and comments I will find it not to my taste! Great review,many thanks!

  19. Catherine Delors says:

    I agree with you: Keira made a terrible Lizzie in that version of P&P (the whole film was a joke, and not of the funny sort.) And the costumes there made her look like an escapee from the set of Les Miz.

    This one was much better, but I do care about historical accuracy, so I resented the fact that the real Georgiana had been so dumbed down.

  20. Penny Klein says:

    I saw this movie at a special showing for the Jane Austen society and Byron society members. I brought a movie reviewer friend with me who also knows her history. we were both upset with the movie for all the biographical reasons mentioned and then Amanda Forman totally loved the movie because it was art and fact didn’t matter. my friend was outraged by that. I wanted to see more of the politics of the time. that was the best part of the book. not sure what the point of the invented rape was, it was made clear she was chosen for dynastic reasons. i agree Ms Knightley was too emaciated for the role although she was quite good in Bend it like Beckham. I also am not sure she understands irony. I did not like her Elizabeth Bennett in the Pride and Prejudice adaptation. she should stick to either pirate movies or something more modern.

  21. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Helen, and I hope you will come back often. As for these movies, if they get you into a bookstore in search of information (and fun, let’s never forget the fun in the study of history) then they are worthwhile.

  22. Helen says:

    What a great post and such wonderful comments as well.

    I suppose I may be the only one who enjoyed these movies. I totally understand the fact that they may not have shown accurate history and most definitely not accurate portrayals but what they did do was give me an “insight” into these women’s lives. These are the kinds of movies that direct me into people of the past. It is these “corny” movies if you will, that get me to the local bookstore in search of the true history. While these movies may not be a perfect “10” to some or even a perfect “2”, it doesn’t fail to intrigue the public into learning more about said historical subjects.

    By the way….I Love It Here! Always enjoy my visits :)

  23. Catherine Delors says:

    Vic – You are harsh, but I agree with all you say about the Coppola film. And MA didn’t even like candy! If you hated that film, you won’t like this one either, for it is definitely inferior in term of visuals.

    Lauren – Thanks for the interesting detail, which I didn’t remember from Amanda Foreman’s bio of G (did she even mention it?) Apparently MA gave dresses as presents. This fragment, for instance, that fetched $76,000 not long ago, is from a dress she gave Madame de Tourzel, governess of the royal children.

  24. Lauren says:

    Dear Catherine, I wasn’t suggesting they were close friends. Just sharing some interesting stories about the lives of Antoinette and Georgiana.

  25. Vic says:

    I am going to comment on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Yes, it was visually stunning. So what? I saw the flick only months after I had actually been to Versailles. Sofia might have tried to take on the role of an artist, but so many elements of that film struck me as wrong and TRITE. Having read numerous accounts of Marie Antoinette’s life, I felt that this film was an MTV interpretation of a complex, sad, though fascinating life. As with The Duchess, subtleties and complexities in the direction were missing. We were left with a silly, bored, gambling, materialistic woman against a back drop of pop music. (I Love Candy? – Oh, barf!) I could hear the Parisian audiences groan. I predict that in two or three decades that scene will be so dated it will be excised from that film. Was the movie visually stunning? Yes. But visuals do not a cinematic experience make. Kirsten Dunst was also completely wrong for the part. Absolutely wrong. I had every intention of loving that movie when I entered the theatre and I wound up hating it.

  26. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh yes, Lauren, they exchanged keepsakes and were obviously fond of each other’s company whenever they met. But they could spent years apart without exchanging as much as a note. Marie-Antoinette wrote quite a bit (as did Georgiana) so the fact that they did not correspond does not seem to indicate a close friendship.

  27. Lauren says:

    I remember reading in Fraser’s ‘The Journey’ that Georgiana remarked having a beautiful muslin dress in her possession that was given as a token of great esteem from, ‘the Queen of France.’ Lady Clermont, in 1775, also told Marie Antoinette that she reminded her of Georgiana, to which she professed herself ‘much flattered.’

  28. Catherine Delors says:

    You are most welcome, Felio!

  29. Felio Vasa says:

    Thanks you for the insightful information (that I did not know) on “their friendship” history.

  30. Catherine Delors says:

    Good question, Felio. Were Marie-Antoinette and Georgiana friends? Many people, including Amanda Foreman, say so, but I have yet to see any evidence of it. They met on several occasions, and liked each other very much as casual acquaintances, but no letter was ever found between two women who spent years on end without seeing each other. Is that friendship? G’s code name for MA, “Mrs. B.” (for Bourbon, I suppose) doesn’t strike me as particularly affectionate. I don’t buy Amanda Foreman’s explanation that a correspondence existed but was destroyed during the Revolution. That’s possible, of course, for letters from G to MA, but that doesn’t explain at all the absence of letters from MA to G. G’s correspondence is still at Chatsworth to this day and presumably she would have kept and treasured letters from a Queen, esp. if said Queen had been a friend.

    Now about  Sofia Coppola’s movie, I realize, as I have said earlier in this comment trail, that I need to see it again. In terms of visuals, and artistic accomplishment in general, it is many cuts above this film. I saw it years ago, and still keep a vivid memory of some passages, while the Duchess is already fading from my mind after two weeks.

    What I didn’t like about MA, and I don’t think I will change my mind after a second viewing, is that it wasn’t true to the character of the real Marie-Antoinette, and Kirsten Dunst was wrong for the part. I was also amazed (not in a good way) by the director’s decision to cut the Revolution from the picture, literally, while that was precisely when Marie-Antoinette revealed herself. So in terms of historical accuracy I found it lacking, which did not prevent me from appreciating his formal beauty.

  31. Felio Vasa says:

    Wow, Catherine you got a lot of feedback on this post- good job. I haven’t seen the film but I do have the book (which I haven’t read) so I feel I can’t comment on something I haven’t seen- but isn’t it true that Marie Antoinette and the Duchess were friends?

    I loved loved Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. I have a different view point than most. First it was visually stunning and because of that I had to go see Versailles asap (which I did) so I consider that film as my stepping stone for my love of the subject. Not all who see these films will be history buffs. Some just want to watch a film & some will go out and do research after- both patrons are welcomed.
    I also feel there is creative licensing to films & the arts too- as Coppola is an artist not an historian. We also have to remember when the Impressionist-Fauvist had their first showing their work was considered revolting, “wild beast”- & even masters like Caravaggio’s works were considered obscene for his time. He shocked the world by just the placement of his subjects on the canvas which seems nothing to us today but he went so against the grain.
    Also films sometimes might spark a symbolic meanings to what we relate in our lives at the moment. In Coppola’s film just dealing with our mothers, families, husbands, friends, gossip, duty are themes that pop up in our daily lives.
    Even watching Louis XVs tears fall down his face on his death bed after du Barry is sent away was so beautiful. We’ve all have experience lost of someone we love.

  32. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Vic I hated everything about that version of Pride and Prejudice, most of all Keira Knightley’s performance. So did my Mom, who is a Janeite, and all of the friends who had the misfortune of watching it.

    This film is definitely better. But Keira was more in her element in the Pirates of the Caribean series.

  33. Vic says:

    The announcement that Keira Knightley would play the duchess was enough to keep me away from the film. While she was cute and perky in Bend it Like Beckham, Keira simply doesn’t have the acting chops to carry off a major starring role. I am still amazed that she received critical recognition for her portrayal of Lizzy Bennet, which was one note, and am scratching my head over Atonement. What was all that fuss about last year? From your review and others I have read, and from the fact that the movie had no legs, the Duchess will fade into obscurity as quickly as Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette did.

  34. Catherine Delors says:

    I agree, Lauren, that is was enjoyable at some level. It is certainly debatable which one, of M-A and this one, is more inaccurate.
    I also agree about the clunky lines and remember a few howlers, for instance when one of the characters (it may have been Georgiana, but the film is fading fast from my memory) asks: “Did the Revolution happen yet?”

  35. Lauren says:

    I, too, had already read the biography before watching this film but decided not to go in too critical and nit-picking and just enjoy the film. Although there are some time frame problems, misrepresentations and a few clunky lines, I still found this a very enjoyable film. The partner even did, which is great considering it’s really a chick flick! I found it less disrespectful to the person of Georgiana than ‘Marie Antoinette’ which dared to suggest that she rolled around in the fields with Fersen!

  36. Catherine Delors says:

    I am afraid, Marie-Helene,  you will be sorely disappointed if you expect anything remotely erotic from this film.

  37. Marie-Helene says:

    I didn’t see the Movie, so I will not bled her eyeball, again…
    Did they make a scene with the menage a trois in the movie?

  38. Catherine Delors says:

    You are most welcome, Beth. No urgency in watching this if you didn’t like Marie Antoinette. This film is on a par in terms of historical accuracy, and visually less appealing.

  39. Beth F says:

    Thanks so much for this review. The comparison with Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette is all I need to know. I’ll likely wait until it appears on HBO/SHO.

  40. Catherine Delors says:

    It all depends on one’s expectations, Eliza. The film has its strong points: the nice visuals, and Ralph Fiennes’s performance.

    My problem in my case is that I have read Amanda Foreman’s bio of Georgiana, and was disappointed in the way her character and story were presented in the film. Would I have enjoyed it better if I had known nothing about Georgiana? Probably, but that’s a major ethical issue when one deals with a historical character. Why make Georgiana so much less interesting than she really was?

  41. Elisa says:

    I was persuing through the Oct/Nov issue of “Royalty” magazine which featured “The Duchess” movie. I thought the article gave a favorable review of it.

  42. Catherine Delors says:

    True, Carol! I wasn’t thinking of Greenaway, but it takes creativity to handle this type of subject without falling into the fancy-dress trap.

    Funny how you changed your opinion of M-A. I only saw it once, with my Mom. She was totally unimpressed, and even had a little nap. I expected worse because French critics had panned it, but was far from charmed by it. Maybe I should watch it again.

  43. Loved the book…
    Hated the movie…
    True I walzed in mid-stream adn fell promptly asleep..after a 20 minute snooze I decided I’d had enough and walzed out. The same thing happened at Sophia’s M-A,when I saw it in Paris. Though now I love it as long as it’s set to the French version.
    They just don’t get it. Only Peter Greenaway could do this sort of thing properly IMHO.

  44. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Sandra! Indeed I am afraid that commercial considerations sometimes overwhelm everything else when it comes to historical films. But here it would have been so much more interesting to follow the real Georgiana…

  45. Wonderful review, Catherine. I long for a historical movie to portray the real thing (bad teeth and all), but I doubt that that’s likely to happen.

  46. Catherine Delors says:

    Neither will I, Elena. Unfortunately, as with Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette, this wasn’t the film’s only flaw.

  47. Great review, Catherine. Why they choose scrawny actresses such as Kirsten Dunst and Keira Knightley to play ample eighteenth century women like Marie-Antoinette and Georgiana, I will never quite understand.

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