The Duchess

Tribulations in 18th Century England are Boring

Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Feinnes

By Robert Patrick

In modern day education, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, is but a small footnote in the voluminous history of Europe. Back in her time, though, the high-ranking noblewoman was known for her flamboyant attire and rumored infidelities. Married to a narcissistic, unforgiving Duke, she encountered severe emotional impoverishment, despite a life of luminescence and wealth, that led her to a life or regret and silence. The tale, told here through director Saul Dibb’s grandiose interpretation of 18th century life, is one of scandal, persecution, and other discontenting affairs that range from the royal couple’s initial consummation to their emotionally draining, cacophonous arguments. Or, if you want the short synopsis, the movie is two hours and twenty-minutes of sophisticated quarreling.

The Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), seeking out a woman to bear an heir to his throne, succeeds in plucking the winsome Georgiana (Keira Knightley) to fulfill the ceremonious deed. The relationship, to Georgiana’s ultimate dismay, is one built on physicality. No matter how much she tries to like him, Georgiana knows that the Duke, unbeknownst to his peers, is a simpleton who hides behind his high ranking status and feigned elegance. She, to say the least, is pretty unhappy.

Lacking the chivalry needed to make his wife happy, the Duke relies solely on his riches to compensate for his chief inability to understand anyone’s emotions. The stoic, unflinching cynicism of the ruler’s demeanor stands as a rigid and unwavering monument to his lack of human empathy. The man, reticent in nature, has but one vow in life: to uphold respect. Even the Duke’s beloved hound dogs, whom he favors more than his neglected Duchess, exude a particular refinement and composure not uncommon of their royal owner. As we see early on, there is no need for companionship in the kingdom of Devonshire.

After a decade of failure in giving birth to a boy, the Duke begins to question his wife’s fertility. Convinced that her body is unable to conceive a male heir, he stuffily ignores her presence. Because of his unruly temper and inherent lean toward promiscuity, the nobleman begins sleeping with other women to quell his incessant frustration. Georgiana, whom is routinely submissive to her husband’s behavior, becomes more and more disquieted by his open affairs, and takes the initiative in regaining control.

Under the helm of Dibb’s direction, this sloppy retelling of a once clandestine and problematic relationship seems more like a dime store romance novel than a serious examination of marital affliction. Rife with incongruity, The Duchess crudely probes the surface of history more than it shows deft marksmanship in penetrating it.

Though irrevocably flawed, the costume design, one of the few saving graces in this otherwise forgettable period picture, is somewhat praiseworthy. Knightley, cheeks matted with rouge, commands her screen time with flowing ensembles, earrings that dip to her shoulders, and a pronounced cap full of rare feathers. “The empress of fashion”, as her contemporaries call the Duchess, wore statuesque headdresses that were bigger than her own body mass, creating a kind of extraordinary decadence that Dibb’s and his wardrobe designers at least addressed in the film.

However I may enjoy the latter, the sweeping mosaic of ivory palaces, the era authenticity, and performances cannot make the movie any less of a vapid bore. The pacing, sluggish and uninteresting for the audience, makes you want to leave the archaic pleasantries of these people to the history books from which they came. There is no kind of sumptuous décor that can dress up a bad movie, even if you throw every powdered wig available at it.

I think, at this point in my review, that I understand why the Duchess of Devonshire is not a more prevalent fixture in historical circles. There was someone called Anne Boleyn who was infinitely more appropriate for a film adaptation (see The Other Boleyn Girl). There isn’t much of a story to tell here. Let’s move on, shall we?


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *