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The Duchess

September 9, 2008

Apologies; small history lesson coming up. Quiet at the back.

Georgiana (pronounced Geor-jay-na) Cavendish was the Duchess of Devonshire at the end of the Eighteenth Century, and a more newsworthy and gossiped-over cause celebre it would be difficult to imagine. Except, of course, it wouldn’t. In fact, it’d be the simplest thing in the world, for Georgiana was born a Spencer and, among her descendants, famously, and inescapably as her story develops, is Diana, Princess of Wales, hovering above this tale like the ghost of Tabloids Future. Even the film poster’s tittle-tattle tagline gloats that “there were three people in her marriage”.

Now, Georgiana – affectionately, ‘G’ – was the first wife of William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, and a celebrated beauty and a socialite. Around her, she gathered a circle of literary (Sheridan, for one, who satirised her to great effect in School for Scandal) and political figures (Charles Fox, notably, one time Foreign Secretary and keen abolitionist), and she brazenly used her patronage to great effect in winning votes for the Whigs.

Early on in her marriage her childlessness proved to be a matter of grave concern, but, after numerous miscarriages she finally gave birth to two daughters, before eventually producing a son and heir. During these difficult periods, where her relationship with her husband faltered, she introduced the Duke to his future mistress and second wife-to-be, Lady Elizabeth Foster, despite ‘Bess’ being widely believed to be G’s best friend. Admittedly, Devonshire had been having significant troubles himself, in keeping the family jewels securely fastened inside his riding kecks, and had already fathered at least one child via a servant girl, whom G adopted as her own. The child, that is. Not the servant girl.

Georgiana also ‘enjoyed the especial and close intimacy’ of thrusting new Whig bright young thing Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey to you, or Viscount Howick if you prefer, who much later on became – praise be! – Prime Minister.

Quite a dysfunctional little tale, all told, but genuinely fascinating stuff, especially with the historical resonances that inevitably linger long after the telling.

Saul Dibb’s remit for The Duchess, the BBC Productions take on this tangled web and seriously crowded marriage, is perforce a tough gig. How do you play all of this without tipping over into melodrama and bodice-ripping silliness? Well, carefully, obviously, and for much of the film’s length the care is ladled on tangibly. Joining the clenched straitjacket of due diligence is an emotional incontinence from many of the players who are understandably scared of letting go and running, hair tossing and big blousy shirts agape, across windswept moors to the strains of Vaughan Williams. But, oddly, it just about works. It’s a thin wire they have to walk along, but one or two instances aside, walk it they do.

Chief clencher is Ralph Fiennes, as the dour uptight Duke, who brings new depth to the utterance ‘Hmmm’, whether he’s foisting one of his bastards on his appalled new wife, stripping her for the first time, seducing his mistress, eating swan stuffed with snipe, or doing the estate accounts. Fiennes is pretty damned good, all told, and knows that like most Englishmen his real passions are dogs and horses, and that rogering is regrettably the one thing he can’t delegate. His is the glummest performance you’ll see all year, but he has the best line, and it’s also the finest observation in the whole thing when, looking out the window at his many offspring playing in the garden he says, with the thinnest smile of all time, “how wonderful it would be to feel that free,” and in that instant you understand the limitations he has felt all his life. For such an unsympathetic character to elicit that level of understanding says much of Fiennes’s delivery.

The rest of the cast do pretty well, apart from Dominic Cooper, of course, as Grey, who proves as he did in The History Boys and Mamma Mia! that he’s just a clothes horse with the ability to recite stuff. You want gravitas and depth and – because he nearly destroys G by asking her to leave her children for him – some possible reason as to why she might even consider such an option. Not for this pretty little popinjay, I’m afraid. Can’t he get a job in a boy band or presenting CBeebies, or something?

Newcomer Hayley Atwell, ah now, that’s different. As the pulchritudinous Bess, she’s the revelation in the mix, filling the screen with a lusty busty reason for living, luring the gloomy Peer into her bed while G is off out being all socialitey.

And that leaves Keira Knightly, of course, as G, who I’ve not yet mentioned, because, well, as I write this, she’s everywhere; on buses, bus stops, magazines, newspapers, the TV, everywhere. Does she really need any more publicity? Well, strangely, perhaps a little, because much to my amazement she’s actually pretty good. She’s also clenching away like crazy (and with good reason, being married to Ralph’s Duke would make anyone tense) and this suits her limitations. Like Cecilia in Atonement, that ice maiden thing works well for her, and although I wouldn’t give up a life of political high office for her, she’s pretty believable as the Duchess, and her many faults, outweighed by her love for her children, come across making her a difficult but winning figure.

Surprisingly, there is a very dark seam running throughout the film, and it gives it a much more grown-up feel than you might expect. A fairy tale it isn’t, and it’s all the better for that.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Hazel permalink
    September 10, 2008 9:06 am

    Keira played Cecilia in Atonement.

  2. September 10, 2008 9:11 am

    Ooops. Thanks Hazel. Now corrected.

  3. Zahara permalink
    October 8, 2008 11:53 pm

    You guys need to see the movie!!!
    it’s fantastic.
    i learned that the American way of finding true love is the way to go…because you only live once, and you should live it to the maximum!!

    so guys, go watch the film and then go live.

  4. October 9, 2008 11:10 am

    Thank you very much Zahara. Could you contextualise your comments for me, as at the moment I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.

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