Title: The Duchess
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Saul Dibb
Screenwriters: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper
Are you the target audience for an acceptable, undistinguished Masterpiece Theater rehash about the oppression of women in 18th Century England? I am not. I was happy enough to sit through The Duchess, which is quite watchable and not without its small pleasures, but I can’t recommend it to anyone without a particular affinity for this sort of thing. In the dead of September, you could certainly do worse — but this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before.
The basic problem, for me, is that The Duchess seems calculated to be perfectly middlebrow: not thoughtful enough to be taken seriously, and not nearly lurid enough to be bodice-ripping fun a lá The Other Boleyn Girl. The result is pretty dull, by-the-numbers stuff: thin characters, obvious hammering on familiar themes, plot threads so underdeveloped that they remain conceptual. Formally, director Saul Dibb’s work is so TV-miniseries standard it makes Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice seem avant-garde. There are some nice performances, and the plot is reasonably engaging on a superficial level, but I’m not sure that’s enough.
The film’s story is indistinguishable from its message: in England, in the late 1700s, an intelligent young woman is driven into, and ultimately trapped in, a cruel, loveless marriage. Refusal or escape would mean ruin. When Georgiana (Keira Knightley) is first informed that she is to marry the enoromously rich Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), she’s actually pleased, especially after her mother (Charlotte Rampling) assures her that “when one truly loves someone, one doesn’t have to know them well to be sure; one knows, right away.” But the Duke turns out to be a monomaniacal asshole, caring only about Georgiana’s perceived inability to produce a male heir (she gives birth to two living girls and two stillborn sons), and prone to taking mistresses willy-nilly. When he shacks up with Georgiana’s friend Bess (Hayley Atwell), who is apologetic but explains that sleeping with the Duke is her only chance of ever seeing her children again, the profoundly unhappy Georgiana desperately starts looking for a way out, only to be blocked at every turn.
This story has been told enough times that we know it isn’t inherently uninteresting, but The Duchess has no angle on it that’s not effectively conveyed via the basic plot description. Women are stifled: when the Duke marvels at the complexity of female attire, Georgiana replies that clothes are the only way women have to express themselves (while men have so many). The Duke’s treatment of Georgiana is exceptionally cruel; she suffers, and ultimately takes her mother’s advice and resigns to her duty — first to bear the duke a male heir, then to maintain his social status. It’s depressing stuff, but the movie has no new insights. It’s the most generic treatment of this subject you can imagine.
The fun, to the extent that there is some, is in the character of the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes with a sort of invidious pragmatism that’s much more interesting before it turns into sneering villainy later in the film. The Duke and Duchess’ wedding night isn’t merely passionless, it’s downright creepy, with Fiennes issuing polite, flat-affect directions (“Would you go to your bed?”); it’s one of the movie’s rare sparks of life. His half-assed attempt at an olive branch in the final minutes is also intriguing, though I wonder if it was meant as an attempt to humanize him; to me, it revealed the depth of his treachery. Not only has he caused unspeakable anguish, but he now has the gall to demand to be left in peace.
The Duchess makes a misguided feint at an upbeat ending where there’s nothing upbeat to be found. Without the dreaded title cards the final grace note maybe could have been read as chillingly ironic, but with them the movie just seems desperate not to be too much of a downer. As with most everything else, it finds a bland middle ground. I wouldn’t call The Duchess boring; it held my attention. But if you came upon it while channel-surfing, you probably wouldn’t stop.