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Heather's Movie Review: The Duchess

Updated on October 21, 2008

"All my life, I've been fighting my way upstream," Georgiana Spencer declared as she described her struggle over fulfilling her marital and personal duties. In the film The Duchess, her struggles were personified best from beginning to end with little room for error or time to absorb everything.

According to various media outlets, Georgiana's life echoed that of the late Princess Diana in every possible way. Well, to some extent that was true. Both were well loved by the people and had to sacrifice some degree of happiness in order to fulfill a sense of obligation. In The Duchess, the film gave the audience the opportunity to look behind the well made up happy facade and see her sadness through each heartrenching betrayal.

The story began with the promise of youth as Georgiana engaged in an act of youthful bliss with her friends before jumping into her grown up reality. Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley, Atonement ) was always looking for everyone's approval from her mother, her husband and the entire free world. As a teenager she jumped head into a loveless marriage arranged by Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling, The Verdict) for the sole purpose of social success. Georgiana entered her new home with a dewy eyed excitement that went away as soon as William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, (Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient) showed no interest in her except to conceive a son.

As the years pass, Georgiana has dealt with the growing demands the Duke has put on her, including his numerous infidelities and passing off an illegitimate daughter as her own. His demands don't seem to faze her much until he slept with Georgiana's new best friend Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell, Brideshead Revisited). The knife injected into her heart allowed her to follow her impulse to reconnect romantically with rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, Mamma Mia!). Georgiana launched herself into a love affair with him that ended with a dilemma for her: him or her children. Bess became a strong means of support for Georgiana as she made the ultimate sacrifice even though she continued to sleep with the Duke.

Knightley's performance as Georgiana allowed Knightley to tackle some heavy adult material such as love, betrayal, and tapping into her maternal instincts. She gave a slow progress to show Georgiana evolve from a passionate young girl to a diplomatic woman. Knightley gave Georgiana a child like innocence as she walked through the Duke's house with wonder as her eyes transformed into saucers. She also connected to Georgiana's children by getting down to their level and acting like a child as she allowed them to play. Towards the latter half of the film, Knightley really showed her chops by tackling such topics as rape and illicit love. The most shocking was the rape scene she shared with Fiennes which forced her to sink into herself and walk around like a downcast shell for a while. Knightley should score an Oscar at some point in her career. If not now, she will somewhere down the line.

Even though he played the film's villain, Fiennes gave his caddish Duke some surprising depth. He said so much without saying anything. He used his eyes to express his romantic limitations as a husband everytime he tried to reach to his wife and she pulled away. Fiennes made the Duke someone ruthless enough to lay claim on his wife and his mistress at the same time. His most pivotal scene was when Georgiana confronted him about his affair with Bess. He was shocked that she had enough backbone to stand up to him, but not enough to stop the affair. Fiennes gave the film the added umph to elevate it beyond soap opera material.

As a relative unknown to Hollywood, Atwell's Bess impressed the audience because she started off as a meek wife dealt with the blow of an abusive husband. She evolved into a dominant woman with the power to sway the Duke to do anything and get him to pull back when necessary. Atwell used her eyes to demonstrate Bess was more than a supporting player. She gave Georgiana the strength to take a step toward love and to step back when the risk was too great. Unfortunately, Atwell wasn't given the opportunity to explore more of her relationships with Georgiana and the Duke, but she was only a supporting player after all.

Overall, The Duchess' plot was entertaining throughout based on the fast moving plot and the talented performances by the three main characters. The only issue with the plot was that not all of the history wasn't explored such as the fact that Bess had children with the Duke. Surely the audience wondered why Bess didn't have any children by him if they carried a decades long affair with the man. This plot point might've been left out for the sake of the story but could've been used to show the depths of Bess' continual betrayal to Georgiana. Despite this historical omission, the film remained at the same fast moving pace through and didn't let up until the very end.

Knightley has quickly become a regular player of period pieces to great perfection (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement etc). Even though she's only 23, she's shown the chops of a Hollywood pro that only grew with age. Hopefully, she chooses her next film project wisely.

Movie Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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