The Duchess, directed by Saul Dibbs and based on the biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, is filled with amazing scenery and costume design that pull the viewer into the aristocracy, glamour and style of 18th century England. That, unfortunately, is all it did.
Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), the wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) was known as one of the first real celebrities of England. She was universally loved, an object of veneration for her sense of style and glamour. With her three-foot hair tower adorned with exotic arrangements and her own fashionable clothing designs, she was the pinnacle of celebrity. Georgiana could also compete with any man when it came to drinking and gambling and was a great supporter of the radical Whig party.
She was most definitely a woman ahead of her time and though this could be seen in the movie, it was not the focus. The Duchess was a movie about a woman who could not get her husband to love her, not about a woman rebelling against the restrictions placed upon her by her time, which the trailer led us to believe.
The movie begins with Georgiana entering a loveless marriage forced upon her by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling) and her subsequent failure to provide her husband with a male heir. Though she is at the top of society and is continually surrounded by adoring fans, she finds her one true friend in Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster (Hayley Atwell), who has her own marital troubles. This one friend then betrays her by becoming her husband’s mistress and moving in with the couple.
The Duchess even falls in love and attempts to have an affair with a young and upcoming politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) that ultimately, like everything else in this movie, ends in disaster. You feel deeply for the character, but to a point where you leave the theater with an overwhelming feeling of depression and a bleaker outlook on life than when you entered.
Along with the cloying feeling of depression, what made this movie practically unbearable was the complete absence of plot. There was no rising action or climax to be found, merely a slow moving along from scene to scene with some progression, but ultimately a feeling of having no idea where it would go next. The film dragged on for what seemed like much longer than the 110 minutes it lasts. When the movie did eventually end, it did so very abruptly and the audience was left with questions and a feeling of disappointment.
Both Knightley and Fiennes do, however, bring their characters to life. Knightley slips easily into the role of a glamorous and aristocratic duchess as being a representation of beauty and style, but falls slightly short when it comes to her portrayal of the wide scope of the Duchess’ personality. She definitely looked the part, but some scenes, including the affair with Charles Grey, were not as passionate as one would expect or hope. Fiennes, however, perfectly captured the cold and haughty Duke. His apathetic attitude was offset by brief moments of emotion, which Fiennes balanced deftly.
Because the Duchess was known as the pinnacle of fashion of her time, costume design was an important aspect that properly set the mood of the film. The mood was not only set, but also the intricacy and attention detail in every single costume made the film an effective look back in time to 18th century aristocratic England.
Michael O’Connor designed the costumes and based many off actual cartoons of Georgiana. The locations and scenery definitely redeemed the film. The sheer size of the homes and palaces and their exquisite architecture were simply amazing, along with the gorgeous landscapes.
The life of Georgiana Spencer is both heart wrenching and commendable. It is a story that deserves to be told, but this movie failed at fully portraying the life of the Duchess. If you enjoy costume design and moving cinematic shots, this movie is definitely worth seeing, but if plot and hope are required for you to enjoy a film, I would suggest another.