The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) stares out the window and watches his young, potential bride. He says the only reason he wants to marry her is if she can and will bare him a son. With her mother’s assurance, young Georgiana (Keira Knightley) becomes the future Duchess of Devonshire. So begins “The Duchess” a powerful, heart wrenching, and beautifully captured film. Director Saul Dibb, puts forth a marvelous film that could have easily become just another biography, but is instead a superbly told story with fantastic acting and breathtaking shots.
Georgiana’s innocent belief that the Duke loves her, fills the young bride with glee, but her joy is short-lived when she realizes the Duke has no interest in talking to her and no interest in making her feel comfortable under any circumstances. With a great longing to discuss things, Georgiana tries her best to seek entertainment elsewhere and quickly finds herself drawn into political discussions while her husband has numerous affairs. She pretends not to notice, even when the Duke’s daughter Charlotte shows up to live with them. Before long, Georgiana gives birth to two daughters to the Duke’s disappointment. While Fiennes doesn’t have an enormous amount of lines, he manages to create this impacting tension, especially during scenes where the Duke is indifferent to the Duchess's pain.
While the timeline progress rather quickly, it only enhances the overall impact of the film that moves at a generous pace. Also enhancing the film is Rachel Portman’s impeccable score, and cinematographer Gyula Pados’ richly composed shots. Six years after the birth of her first daughter, the Duke and Duchess meet Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) who quickly befriends Georgiana and declines the Duke’s advances. In much need of a friend, Georgina invites Elizabeth to live with them. Elizabeth not only comes to play a pivotal part in the Duke and Duchess’s relationship, she also provides a base for what will become Georgiana’s ultimate decision. Elizabeth has no place to go because her husband kicked her out and won’t let her see her children, and when she later makes choices to get her children back, Georgiana says to her, “there are limits to the sacrifices one makes for one’s children” to which Elizabeth replies, “No there aren’t. No limits whatsoever.”
While the Duke occupies himself with having a son, the Duchess puts on plays, designs her clothing, and is a political hostess. At one of her plays she meets a past friend, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) and is instantly drawn to him. Grey, who wants to be Prime Minster joins up with the Duchess to further promote their political party, since she has such a powerful influence over the public. Georgiana manages to keep her distance from Grey until she discovers the Duke and Elizabeth’s affair. The Duke refuses to remove Elizabeth from their home, so Georgiana returns to their house where all three of them live and where Georgiana proposes a compromise: that Elizabeth may stay with her blessing, if the Duke will give his blessing for Georgiana to be with Charles Grey. Outraged at the very idea, the Duke says, “Give me a son. Until then, stay here and do as I say.”
The remainder of the film builds quite dramatically as Georgiana starts to free herself from the Duke to be with Grey, happily and blissfully. When the Duke finds out about Georgiana’s affair, he threatens that if she stays with Grey she will never see her children again. While this choice is hard for her, it is not the hardest choice she will have to face throughout the course of the film. The final choice that she must make, to the Duke’s demand, is unbelievably heartbreaking and Knightley’s portrayal of a woman torn does it incredible justice.
Knightley is the star of the film, without question. She carries every scene and does so in a way that shows incredible growth throughout. This is one of Knightley’s best performances, as she shows a great deal of maturity here and struggle that is required in this kind of role. Atwell and Cooper play well off of Knightley and Fiennes, and bring to life the characters that helped define who the Duke and Duchess were. While I went into “The Duchess” expecting nothing more than a period piece biography, I ended up enjoying the film and the performances a great deal. At a quick pace, with stunning landscape and impeccable costumes this finely acted and emotional film is worth a look.
VIDEO: Paramount provides an enjoyable 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation for "The Duchess". The film's period detail is presented with greater clarity and precision on the Blu-Ray edition, but the DVD still boasted reasonably good sharpness and definition. While a couple of slight instances of edge enhancement were seen, they didn't get in the way of an otherwise lovely transfer. The film's rich, warm color palette appeared accurately presented, and flesh tones also looked spot-on.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Surrounds are not put to use for much of the running time, aside from some minor reinforcement of the music and occasional, slight instances of ambience. Audio quality was very pleasing, with crisp, natural dialogue and a full, warm sounding score.
EXTRAS: “How Far She Went…Making of The Duchess” This feature is divided into six chapters, each focusing on several aspects of the film. In “The Real Georgiana” interviews with Amanda Foreman, author of “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”, Keira Knightley and historical advisor, Hannah Greig offer new insights and interesting historical detail that only adds to the film and the impression of Georgiana. The filming locations and set design are touched on in the feature with information about the existing estates, as well as the impact actors had performing in such lavish settings. Costume, especially the headdresses, are also talked about. Discussion of finding the right cast to portray such lofty characters is explored, especially focusing on Knightley’s dedication to the role and her overall performance. Also talked about are the many layers each character has, emphasizing the fact that it’s not as simple as saying “he’s bad, she’s good”. This is overall a simple, but fascinating collection of well organized chapters that enhance the film, rather than take away from it. With interesting interviews and behind-the-scenes footage this is a wonderful addition with the film.
“Georgiana In Her Own Words”
Producer Gabrielle Tana and author Amanda Foreman sit together and look over the letters Georgiana wrote, letters that Foreman used to write her book, “Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire”. They discuss the evolution Georgiana’s letters from a young girl to a mature woman. They read pieces of the letters and comment on how the early letters are very youthful, and are just details of her daily activities, whereas the letters quickly change, along with Georgiana. This is a fascinating feature because it’s incredibly interesting to see the actual writing of the Duchess and to hear her words. Definitely worth a look.
Costume Designer, Michael O’Connor talks about the evolution of the clothing, including the change the Duchess has from the beginning of the film to the end. He also talks about the importance of making the clothes fit the scene, the character and even the emotion of the characters, which the actors comment upon. The clothes in “The Duchess” are beautiful art forms and this is a fantastic look at the designer behind them.
Final Thoughts:"The Duchess" remains a powerful, engaging period drama with a marvelous lead performance by Kiera Knightley. The DVD provides first-rate image quality, good audio quality and a few minor extras. Recommended.
The Film B+