The Duchess (Saul Dibb, 2008) "We are jungle creatures" says Eleanor of Aquitane in The Lion in Winter, an obvious statement of the theme that no matter what station one achieves in life, at the core we are beasts, however advanced the thought, however disciplined the politics. You can cosset and corset (and even consecrate), but basically all those palaces are just a better class of zoo.
The pre-title sequence of The Duchess makes that abundantly clear on two fronts, as the Lady Georgiana (Keira Knightley*) is brokered for marriage to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) by her mother (Charlotte Rampling, whose voice, even in polite hushed tones, can carry a room), while outside a clutch of waiting-ladies are betting on a foot-race of young men as if they were horses. Breeding is all.
Of course, it's thrilling to be a Duchess. Except the part about being a duchess...especially married to this Duke. Entitled up to his powdered wig and determined to not let any of it slip, his sole focus is a male heir (something at which he's been practicing quite a bit, a daughter suddenly and unexpectedly turning up in the household), and when the Duchess fails to produce (or reproduce) any but female progeny, the Duke begins to take extra liberties.
It was different times, with men talking about emancipation and freedom and revolution, while the women waited in separate rooms, smiling tightly and—if thought not seen—rolling their eyes. There's a reason the Bill of Rights (written slightly earlier than when this film takes place) says "All men are created equal." Women are property, adornments only. A means to an heir. And if one is not produced in the bargain, the contract can be nullified...but only to a certain extent. Scandals, royal or not, are to be avoided. Apperances must be kept. And more so for the ladies than the men.
What feels like a lecture on e-woman-cipation is couched in the true-life misery of the Duchess of Devonshire—her story is somewhat reminiscent of another, more modern-day Duchess who shares her last-name Spencer—who befriends a woman who rebuffs the Duke's advances only to have her be a "third wheel" in a complicated arrangement, then, seeks the company of another man. Word gets out, and a scandal in the papers is barely avoided.
It's all very posh, with real locations used, and candles aplenty. Knightley is far more expressive than she seems in the embedded photos, and Fiennes manages to make the wretchedness of the Duke seem somewhat bearable—he's not so much hissable as pitiable, once you get over the desire to thrash him.
|Duchess Georgianna observes (curiously) as her world falls apart.|
* I have to admit to rolling my eyes a bit when first seeing the trailer for this film. I happen to like Knightley, finding her performances spunky, and nicely unafraid to look unattractive in them, but even I had reached my saturation point, seeing her elevated in this period piece. I didn't see this for a long time, and have a satisfied opinion of it, and her performance in it. She acquits herself well.