Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful.

I wonder if there was ever a royal who just had an easy time of it. Someone who liked all the pomp and fuss, and was satisfied with their marriage, and didn’t have any existential angst or angry mobs chasing them around? I guess if there were any royals like that, they’d be too boring for us to hear about.

In The Duchess, Keira Knightley is the very unboring Georgiana of Devonshire. Georgiana is charming and bold and smart and lovely and all the things Keira Knightley characters are supposed to be. She is the It girl of her social crowd, where men want to listen to her opinions as they gaze upon her and women want to wear what she’s wearing. She also has pretty much the mother of all bad marriages. All the duke (Ralph Fiennes) wants from his young bride is a male heir, and he has no use for her when she’s not “doing her duty” to try to make that happen. Over the course of the movie, he goes from being merely cold and single-minded in purpose to downright cruel and maniacal. Every “failure” during Georgiana’s efforts to bear a son is met with hate and vicious blame.

As is the way with people in bad relationships they can’t escape, Georgiana falls for another man. This man is the aspiring politician Sir Charles Grey. Georgiana’s feelings for him set off a soap-opera-worthy series of events, with sex, gossip, betrayal, and sacrifice. It’s all showcased with wonderful sets and costumes, solid, not over-the-top performances, and a brisk, gripping pace. We want everything to work out for Georgiana, but we don’t see how it can. I was engaged and entertained throughout the whole film.

And yet, this is one of those films where things started to bother me after it was over. This Charles Grey character, for example. We see him only a couple of times before he and Georgiana begin their affair, and besides the facts that he wants her and he wants to be a politician, we know nothing about him. He’s certainly not memorable in any way. Also, we hear Georgiana speak of a father she seems to admire, wishing her husband were more like him, but we never see him. Her mother is there (an underused Charlotte Rampling), but siblings are never mentioned. The real Georgiana had a younger brother and sister; maybe some of the people she’s playing a game with in the opening scene are supposed to be them? Or have they been jettisoned to highlight our character’s loneliness? If so, that’s fine, but it seems like at some point someone would mention that her family seems to be getting by okay without a male heir. There’s also something about the way the film ends that bothers me: it just doesn’t have the force that the rest of the film seems to be building up to.

But, all in all, this is a good movie that you will like if you like any of the following: pretty period costumes, British accents coming from attractive men, Keira Knightley’s jawline, Gossip Girl-esque blackmail, or scenes of someone accidentally setting their hair on fire.

Something for everyone!


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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