This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.
The Duchess of yawn
This period drama is all corsets and no character
By Melissa Silvestri
Published: October 8th, 2008
The Duchess is a lackluster film that seems like a shell of its self. With empty characters and a cliché repressed wife making the choice between fulfilling her duties as the duchess and living independently with a young hot liberal, it’s similar in style and execution to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Both films suffer from the same problem of pretty imagery but a weak storyline.
The Duchess follows the path of young Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley), who is betrothed to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) in 1774. At 17, she enters a life of grand privilege and charms a large circle of literary and political figures with her witty quips and comely looks. But what looks like an interesting life is all a façade: Georgiana is unable to conceive a surviving male heir, and her husband has many affairs unabashedly. After he unknowingly destroys the only truly happy part of her life, she chooses to have an affair with a young and handsome budding politician, and is given a sharp ultimatum by her husband when she reveals this affair.
The film suffers by making a potentially interesting story dull, reducing Georgiana to some heroine of a typical bodice-ripper who discovers her hidden sexuality through hot forbidden sex with an attractive man, while being imprisoned by a much older, cold husband. The casting of Knightley doesn’t help — her girl-of-the-21st-century appeal clashes with the gravitas and old-fashioned appeal required to play a 1780s character. While she fit as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice because of her modern feminist attitude, she looks out of place and overwhelmed by this film.
As for the other actors, Fiennes is good and delivers the material well, and Hayley Atwell stood out as Georgiana’s troubled best friend Lady Elizabeth, who betrays her in a soul-killing scene that nearly destroys Georgiana’s heart. Dominic Cooper as the lover (who becomes the future prime minister) doesn’t have much to do but look earnest and gaze at Georgiana, then make sweet love to her.
If you like period dramas and all that goes with powdered wigs, corsets, and repressed emotions, then this film is good to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, don’t expect much.