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The Duchess: Oh, the (Beautifully Costumed) Drama!

Of course The Duchess is dramatic. Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, led a dramatic life and she herself was a dramatic — and smart, and charismatic — woman. I really liked this movie, but I might have liked it more if it were a slightly broader examination of the Duchess. I don't mean that they should have included more years in her life (I think that would have been a mistake) but the vast majority of the film is about her romantic and reproductive woes. She was a daring, intelligent, and remarkably influential woman during a time when women were expected to be anything but those things. While I liked this sweeping period drama, I might have enjoyed less soap opera and a tad more substance.

The costumes, however, cannot be disputed, for they are devastatingly gorgeous. I would watch this movie over and over with the sound off just to feast my eyes on the clothes. Dressed to perfection in every scene, Keira Knightley plays Georgiana, who marries William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire when she is just a teenager. The marriage is soon strained as it appears that Georgiana will only bear daughters. While the relationship grows bitter in private, Georgiana starts to become quite popular in public and immerses herself in the world of politics and high society. She's a natural charmer and trend-setter, though her husband puts more and more distance between them, choosing other women over his wife. Before long, Georgiana finds herself falling in love with a young politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), but the threat of scandal proves too great for the Duke and Duchess and a relationship with Charles is forbidden. There's much more to the story, but I won't spoil things for you. I can still share some thoughts, though, so


Knightley strongly carries the film with her focused, honest portrayal of the brightly alluring yet unfortunate Duchess of Devonshire, and if she veers into melodrama it’s because the material clearly calls for it. She’s still a relatively young actress, which I think people sometimes forget, and while she still appears young onscreen (with that permanently youthful bounce in her step, a fresh energy to even her most morose scenes), there is so much potential there for her to mature into a truly phenomenal performer. She acts with her entire body, conveying emotion in the tiniest details: her whole frame rigid with rage, a coquettish tip of her head and a sidelong glance, the utterly distraught balling up of one fist . . . these things inform our understanding of Georgiana's emotional landscape.

Most of the time I cringed and tsk-tsked at the wretchedness of this poor young woman’s life, as the story is basically a long string of relationship issues and anxiety over pregnancies. There are countless historical movies that, if they center on a woman at all, focus on the pressure to conceive a male heir, the havoc this wreaks on a marriage, and the power plays that arise between the women who can conceive and those who cannot. This is understandable, given the nature of society back then, and yet here’s a story with some built-in political drama as well, with a fearless, deeply inspiring female protagonist. I would have appreciated more of that story. That said, I was riveted to this movie, intoxicated by the costumes and just as smitten with the Duchess as the rest of England seems to be. It’s a beautiful and sad film that is well worth seeing.

Photos courtesy of Paramount Vantage

Join The Conversation
zeze zeze 8 years
Just saw it, beautiful movie, so sad, it stays with you, because in many ways the underlying emotions of this film still exist today, so many women face the modern version of the Duchess' situation in one form or another. Like you said Buzz, this movie did need more substance, and I think this being a mainstream movie it had to be 2hrs or less, but I hope a BBC mini series is made of her life showing more then the snippets we see in the movie, showing her relationships more in depth and showing the unique social scene and people of the time period. I am a period movie/book fan so I was able to fill in the blanks, but it may be lost on people who don't know much about the period and it would be nice to see it all play out even if one does know it.
tiggles101 tiggles101 8 years
I liked Kiera in this movie.
Lysa1237 Lysa1237 8 years
I Agree with Sonya Ina.
californiagirlx7 californiagirlx7 8 years
I can't wait to see this! I know Keira does a lot of period pieces, but she is great in them.
nancita nancita 8 years
I wasn't sure whether to see this or not, but it sounds intriguing. Thanks for the review. You are totally right about Keira acting with her whole body; that definitely makes her better than the average young starlet.
bibliophile bibliophile 8 years
I was a bit disappointed with this film. It didn't come close to portraying Georgiana's life in full, and she had a varied, interesting life. Although her life certainly had its share of pain--a loveless marriage, severe gambling debts, being torn from her true love, Charles Grey and their baby--it also had many joys, such as her untiring devotion to her children, her circle of friends, and her heavy involvement in the politics of the day, which she greatly influenced and which fulfilled her immensely. She also wrote poems and plays for which she received much praise. But the film really didn't delve into any of this, focusing instead on the romantic entanglements of her and her peers (of which there were plenty). As a result, there was an overly melancholy feel to the film that would compel one to think Georgiana had a dreary, miserable life, which isn't how I felt upon finishing the biography (on which the film is based). If anything, I turned the last page feeling as though I truly got to know a captivatingly smart, influential, benevolant woman who couldn't help but make people fall in love with her. If you're at all interested in Georginana's life, I highly recommend reading the biography by Amanda Foreman. It's such a beautiflly written and researched book and it won a prestigious biography award while the author was only in her 20's! I think the only redeeming thing about the film is the eye candy-those costumes are to die for!
Fashion Fashion 8 years
I die.
MrsJamesTKirk MrsJamesTKirk 8 years
I saw it a couple weeks ago, and I really liked it. Mostly for the costumes, which are insanely gorgeous, and Keira Knightley is gorgeous in them. I still kind of wish women dressed like that...even if it is really uncomfortable.
fleurfairy fleurfairy 8 years
I'm going to see it tomorrow night! Can't wait for the clothes! I wish we dressed like that today. I would love to wear all the layers and layers of beautiful silks and muslins and velvets. Sigh...
tiabia tiabia 8 years
I will say the Keira Knightley is a pretty formidable period pieces. I'm anxious to see her branch out and do something more current. Or even take on a more lighthearted tale.
Juicylemon Juicylemon 8 years
Thjis movie sounds interesting. I love Ralph Fiennes and period films. I also think that Keira Knightly is a good actress. She impressed me in Pride and Prejudice.
Black-Velveteen Black-Velveteen 8 years
Me too psterling. I love period films and I will also be watching this. I really just wanna watch this to see the period gowns :)
psterling psterling 8 years
I don't feel one way or the other about Keira Knightly but I love, love, love period films! Especially ones with gorgeous costume. I will definitely be watching it.
suziryder suziryder 8 years
I'm a Keira fan. I think she's a great actor and although she does sometimes tend to look boyish, I think she's beautiful. She's a strong actor who will only get better and I don't understand why people think she's so terrible.
tlsgirl tlsgirl 8 years
I totally agree, sonya ina. I find her so annoying. It just seems like all she does is play the same character every time, and enough with the period pieces! Honestly, even Fiennes and the costumes probably aren't enough for me to see this.
ilanac13 ilanac13 8 years
i'm SOO EXCITED that you liked this movie - i'm obviously a huge keira fan and i think that she does wonders with period pieces like this. i've heard reviews that the film doesn't really give us the deepest look at some of the things that went on in her life - but i think that they are doing it justice and i can't wait to see it!
sonya-ina sonya-ina 8 years
This movie looks good, but I can't stand Keira Knightley. Though, I may just see it for the garments and Ralph Fiennes.
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