The Duchess
Pity the Poor Rich People

There are not many grand historical epics being made these days—not that there ever were.  But who wants to see a CGI gloss on Barry Lyndon, Doctor Zhivago, or even Braveheart?  Fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings are certainly welcome enough, but we seem to want history served up straight, with all the right period details and nuances fleshed out in glorious array.  It’d be cheaper to do with green-screens and computer horsepower, of course, but the incongruity would just be too much for audiences to swallow.

So if your taste runs to historical epics—and British ones, to boot—bear in mind that there aren’t a great many of you out there.  The Duchess grossed only $13 million in its theatrical run… respectable enough numbers, but not so hot against a budget of $25 to $50 million after marketing expenses.

Ralph Fiennes as The Duke in The Duchess

The good news for genre fans is that Keira Knightley seems to be single-handedly keeping this mode of filmmaking alive, thanks in part to her image from the Pirates of the Caribbean films.  She of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement (and, more forgettably and regrettably, Silk and King Arthur) seems a perfect fit of relatability and distance in historical settings, while an appealing but slightly out-of-place presence in our own times.  Like Peter O’Toole, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlton Heston, Katherine Hepburn, and Richard Burton in their own era, Knightley is simply larger than life.

The Duchess is a particularly good fit for Knightley because Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, was also a bit unfit for her times and lived life large.  We meet her when she is still a mere teenager of privilege—and almost before we know it, she is whisked off to a marriage/prison of even greater privilege… and obligation.  Like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette a couple of years ago, the early going is very much a fish-out-of-water tale, though it’s fair to say that Marie and Georgiana were both pretty exotic fish to start with.  But where Antoinette turns into an almost feminist celebration of Marie’s triumph over station and patriarchal oppression—Louis is painted as equally naïve and bored, not malevolent or particularly invested in the modes of the time—The Duchess does not feel at all celebratory… though I dare say it wishes to.

If the film’s epilogue is to be believed—and it’s enough of a downer to suspect it ought to be—Georgiana’s tale is not one of triumph over great adversity but near-capitulation to the strictures that bind her.  Yes, life is as confining as a whale-bone corset, and she manages to express herself as fully as she may within the bounds that her older husband the Duke lays out.  But director Saul Dibb’s camera slyly shows us that the ways in which she manages such expression leave stripes more subtle than the lash—but no less hurtful or damaging.  What happiness the Duchess finds is fleeting, and comes at great cost.  Her story, plain and simple, is one of perseverance—or, as Georgiana’s mother obliviously puts it, “fortitude, patience, and resignation.”  Listen as you watch, for example, for the announcement of the birth of the “Sixth Duke of Devonsh-Aaaaahhhh!”

As good as the astute, refined filmmaking and the casting is here—Ralph Fiennes’ recent tabloid-scapades even work to his advantage in portraying the self-absorbed Duke—I’m still left pretty cold on the meaning of the story. 

Are we supposed to be grateful for this high society matron’s contributions to humanity at large?  If so, I grossly underestimate the cultural value of glamorous couture.

Are we supposed to feel uniquely sorry for the Duchess—or even the Duke—because they were trapped by the social conventions of their time? I’m afraid I don’t. We can easily look back on the late 18th Century with a sense of pity, but I’m sure we’re well stocked with our own 21st Century blindspots; and the film doesn’t seem to care much about the plight of the less fortunate.  I’ve never been fond of the “poor, misunderstood and put-upon rich people” genre.

For a tale of real meaning from that same period, I think I’d opt for Les Miserables, Amazing Grace, Sense and Sensibility, or even Marie Antoinette.  The characters in this film are simply too much of a moderately interesting thing, and seem to have little or no cognizance of anything happening in the outside world.  But perhaps that’s the point.  Alas!

And don’t go looking for any additional insight from the disc’s sparse special features.  The producer’s sitdown with the source material’s writer is surprisingly empty-headed and redundant for a film as well-made and generally entertaining as this one.

The Duchess is rated PG-13 for “sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.”  As you might expect from a period romance, there’s a little steaminess—but nothing of a scandalous nature.  I am constantly amazed at the raunch of some contemporary-setting PG-13 films and this doesn’t rank anywhere close to past releases such as Norbit and You, Me and Dupree. A little adult passion simply does not equate to ladle-fulls of sophomoric smut. Still, the rating this time out is appropriate… and to be fair, the MPAA has done a much better job with this rating in 2008.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of The Duchess.