The Duchess (2008, Paramount)
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Period pieces have to fight an uphill battle, from the moment a studio decides to press forward and make them. They’re a niche market, to be sure; no computers or other modern contrivances for the characters to use in aid of plot points. No one flying through the sky, either in X-wing fighters or under their own power. Not a lot of rough language, for those of that particular bent. Period pieces have the singularly unique blight of being all lumped together as the same type of story, simply told in slightly different ways each time…in other words: BORING. Aside from 1998’s Elizabeth, which bestowed Cate Blanchett upon the world, one would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of recent period pics that even came close to making their budget back.

The Duchess–released so long ago, back in September of ’08–was only the latest to not earn returns on its relatively modest $25 mil budget. The U.S. trailer was woefully unremarkable (an obvious result of Paramount Vantage’s marketing division being unable to properly distinguish it), while the U.K. trailer (the film was produced in association with BBC Films)–much more artfully and interestingly done–attempted to draw comparisons between the central character, the Duchess Georgiana Cavendish of Devonshire, and the late Princess Diana of Wales, who was of some blood relation. While the comparisons between their lives–that of women trapped in loveless marriages, unable to fully live their lives as they choose due to duties of family, duty and the confines of aristocracy–are both relevant and accurate, on this point The Duchess was also doomed because of the poor timing of its release. Had the film been released back in 1997 following Diana’s untimely death, it would have done boffo box office biz.

Then again, star Keira Knightley would have only been 12 years old and unable to assume the part…and it is her performance, along with Ralph Fiennes’, which serve as the definitive linchpins of the film.

Georgiana Spencer is a member of the aristocracy in 1774, when she is betrothed at age 17 to William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana dreams of living in luxury and romance, while the Duke is a no-nonsense man of privilege who seeks only to have his wife bear him a male heir to continue the dominance of his family in England. The film follows Georgiana’s existence within a marriage which quickly becomes one of simple convenience for the Duke–who enjoys numerous dalliances with female servants or other nearby aristocratic ladies–while she in turn attempts to express herself by becoming active in politics centuries before women achieved the right to vote, her publicly outspoken yet easygoing ways in turn making her beloved by the common folk as well as her peers.

Knightley is sublime as Georgiana, giving one of her most memorable performances to date. Rather than relying on a ton of exposition to carry her feelings outward, Knightley is able to convey her shock and hurt upon discovering the Duke has taken her best friend Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) as his latest lover with only a single look. When she later explodes at William the Duke over this, there is a reluctant pain in his face at the hurt he has inflicted…Fiennes has chosen to play the part as a man who isn’t just bad (as was intended by the script written by the team of Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and director Saul Dibb, from the book by Amanda Foreman), but rather as one who is simply used to having his way, and is confounded by the love bestowed upon his wife by the people, and the way she moves about in public social circles in manners she shouldn’t be able to, by the standards of the time.

On a quick side-note, the score for the film, by composer Rachel Portman, is full of lush strings, moody piano, and is a triumph of joy, romance (this part stemming from the doomed affair between Georgiana and Charles Grey, played passionately by Dominic Cooper) and melancholy.

Georgiana Cavendish was the first true “celebrity”…as the script based on Foreman’s book, which in turn was taken directly from personal letters of Georgiana tends to show. She designed many of her own dresses and hair pieces, which in turn influenced the tastes of ladies of the aristocracy. She almost single-handedly managed to turn the tide of elections for her Whig Party’s movement. In terms of the ease with which people dealt with her, she was even called “G” by her closest friends. She also unfortunately died steeped in debt, due to her gambling habits, one of the results of her desperation in being unable to extricate herself from a marriage in which she had no say whatsoever, and in which she served as little more than a sperm receptacle for a man who fathered children out of wedlock without a care for Georgiana’s regard.

The Duchess DVD comes with several special features, including background on the real-life locations used, as opposed to doing every set with CGI (and kudos to director Dibb for this choice!), author Foreman reading from the real Duchess Cavendish’s personal letters, and interviews with the two central actors, Knightley and Fiennes. Fiennes’ interview is particularly interesting, because he originally turned down the role, but then chose to take the part–after consistent urging from producer Gabrielle Tana–if he could play the part on his own terms. Knightley also has an amusing anecdote to tell about the nearly two-foot wig she had to play for one particular scene, and the ways in which the crew would tease her about it all day. She comes across as a good sport, and her light-heartedness during the interview is refreshing.

It’s a shame The Duchess didn’t fare better at the box office, because it definitely deserved better. Now that it’s on DVD, take it home and enjoy it in all its grandeur.