The Duchess makes its point: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity, thematic material
At its core, The Duchess is an engrossing tale ripped from the history pages of 18th century England that foreshadows the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.
The story begins in April 1774 at the Althorp House. (The place is familiar to Dianaphiles and royalty followers. The young Viscount Althorp made quite a splash on the Today show as a sort of tour and culture guide for all the multitudes keen on learning more about his sister’s background and impending wedding. The real house is open to the public, including the “official” burial spot of Lady Di, although conspiracy theorists say that’s simply a way to attract tourists — and effectively distract them from her true burial spot, a tiny little church not far from Althorp.)
Stepping back in time, a playful and flirtatious 17-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) cavorts on the lawn at Althorp. She’s in love with one Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper, Mamma Mia!), a young man with his eyes set on becoming prime minister. At that point in her young life, she had met William, the 5th Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient), only twice. But, her mother (Charlotte Rampling, Angel Heart) assures her, “one feels love right away” and the duke knows he is in true love with Georgiana.
Her happy, romantic overtures with Charles effectively scotched, Georgiana eagerly enters into marriage with the duke.
She chose poorly.
The Devil and Miss Spencer
Considering she lived in the halcyon days of 1770s chivalry and war with those reckless upstart miscreants called “Americans,” Georgiana was quite a character in her own right.
At one point she comments that there is no way a person could be “moderately free” any more than the same person could be “moderately dead.” She also very insightfully notes, when asked about her extravagant outfits, that women have to make do with hats and dresses as a way to express themselves. Most women, that is. Far from afraid to speak up, Georgiana had a bit of the devil in her and she was openly active in the quest for “freedom.”
Even before their wedding night, the clash of sensibilities between William and Georgiana is obvious. He can’t stand the rhetoric of politics and would rather play with his dogs than engage in any meaningful discourse — or intercourse, for that matter. All he wants is for Georgiana to provide him with a son to inherit his lot.
This is the kind of material — right or wrong — that makes it so easy to substitute Lady Di for Lady G. and Prince Charles for the Duke of Devonshire. Lightning’s struck the Spencer clan at least twice.
The School for Scandal
This high society nightmare is an absorbing, albeit somewhat staid, affair based on the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (who also served as an executive producer on the movie).
While those inevitable comparisons to Lady Di and Chuck give it some juice, The Duchess works on its own terms thanks in large part to Knightley, who is well versed in wearing all those awkward, overwrought dresses of the time. Knightley holds her own against the more seasoned Fiennes and together they portray an infuriating relationship that saw Georgiana give birth to two healthy girls and suffer through the miscarriages of two boys before finally delivering the son William so coveted.
At the same time, almost instantly dissatisfied with Georgiana, William carries on an affair with Bess (Hayley Atwell, Brideshead Revisited), a live-in friend of Georgiana’s.
Suffering through infidelity and abuse, Georgiana becomes a prisoner in her own house, but her mother encourages her to simply go forward with “fortitude and resignation.” As for William, he naturally demands that Georgiana obey him or he’ll destroy her.
William’s a thoroughly passionless character, but Fiennes deftly exhibits the slightest bit of internal conflict that takes William beyond being a simple, one-note wonder. William, so it would seem, is himself resigned to the fact that this is how things are done in their upper echelons of society. It’s how things are “supposed” to be, so he’s simply acting accordingly.
When all is said and done, the movie effectively makes one other argument that can also be backed up with numerous other examples throughout history: women are indeed the stronger sex.