The Duchess – Dibb’s “Non-Historical” History Drama

The Duchess (2008, UK)

 110 min. PG 13

Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and Saul Dibb

The Duchess

The Duchess was inspired by Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. The book was very popular among readers and successful with critics. In this costume drama we can see a span of 20 years in the life of a woman that many today would refer to as the “Posh Girl” of late 18th century England.

The Duchess

The Real Duchess of Cavendish

Set in England in the times of the American Revolution it begins in 1774 when Georgiana was a young 17 year old girl. Her mother, Lady Spencer, (played by extraordinary veteran actress Charlotte Rampling) sets the marriage between young Georgiana (Keira Knightley is stellar in her performance), who is one day shy of her 18th birthday, and the 5th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (exquisitely played by Ralph Fiennes).

Very quickly young Georgiana finds herself in an unhappy marriage. This dysfunctional marriage has a huge impact on her everyday life even though on the surface everything appears wonderful. In terms of her relationship with the relatively older Duke, as time goes by the marriage goes awry as she is unable to fulfill her duty of giving birth to a male heir to the house of Devonshire which was her principal purpose and obligation as wife and primary reason for marrying the Duke.

He is otherwise disinterested with her and takes interest only in his hound dogs, which he adores. At the same time he involves himself in a relationship with Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), “G’s” friend, and this marriage turns into a practical ménage a trois. Curiously G is her nickname which is quite unusual for that time; this was maybe the director’s or writer’s effort to make this film accessible for a younger audience.

This production tends to be considered biopic and popular at the same time and neglects historical events surrounding England’s politics, of which the most important was certainly the American Revolution which spans the period that the film follows as well as the French revolution which began in 1789.

This is a very well-crafted backdrop for our main characters to develop, especially keeping in mind that these two revolutions improved society for most, including women. The main reason for bringing this into the spotlight is the fact that in the movie Georgiana is a supporter of Whig politician Charles Fox, her distant cousin.  The real-life love affair between Georgiana and politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), referenced in the film, nearly ended his political career. Later in his life Charles Grey became the prime minister of Britain.

The Duchess

Actress Keira Knightely embodies the role of Lady Georgiana

A similar technique of not directly referencing the war within a love story was used in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence which takes place in New York City during the American Civil War.

Stunning visuals in this film and the atmosphere created by the director Saul Dibb contribute to a positive overall impression of this film. Detailed costumes and production design are all top notch.

And last but not least the screenwriters did a great job in terms of character development, though the story has some minor flaws. There were many subplots that could have been explored but unfortunately it didn’t happen.

It must be noted that one of the writers, Anders Thomas Jensen, is a wonderful screenwriter and if you have a chance you should see his Danish films including, Adam’s Apple and Brødre (the American remake is Brothers with Jake Gylenhall). Jensen was an Academy Award winner at a very early age and is one of the most prolific European screenwriters today with 46 titles attached to his name.

The bottom line is if you want to see a period drama this isn’t probably one of the best to recommend but you should give it a chance. You will see some fine performances from all of the actors, masterful visuals from DOP Gyula Pados, and at the same time you will get an introduction to the history of Britain and its politics of the period.

Watch the full trailer here!



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