For most of The Duchess, I was hoping for something to happen. I shouldn’t have made that mistake. In the time period this film is set in, things just didn’t happen when a woman is your lead character. They were raised to be little more than tools for men to acquire a son, after all, especially when you’re married to royalty. Such is the case for Georgiana (Keira Knightley) who, before turning 18, has become the Duchess of Devonshire.
Her husband is the Duke, William (Ralph Fiennes). He wants an heir. That’s his sole motivating factor of the film. He says he loves her, although it’s difficult to ever believe that, especially after he takes a mistress, Bess (Hayley Atwell) under his wing. Bess ends up living with the couple, and you might assume that things would be awkward at the dinner table, but that’s rarely the case here. Georgiana takes everything in stride, rarely complaining or seemingly even caring if things will change.
However, she does want equality in this regard. She loves a man, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), and she wishes that, since her husband has a lover, it’s only fair if she has one as well. Of course, this is the eighteenth century, so equality for women was a concept more or less unheard of. Grey, as history and the final title credits tell us, goes on to be Prime Minister. His party, the Whigs, if the film is to be believed, would have supported women’s rights if that idea came up.
That makes me wonder if Georgiana really loved him, or loved the idea of him. She is a celebrity who has an interest in politics, gambling, and fashion. So, seeing a man who advocates freedom and the rights of everyone makes sense in a strictly logical sense. If he can further her ideals, then what better man to have an affair with? Or maybe she did love him, and I was making things up because nothing much happened in the film.
See, in our society, one would hope that the woman in Georgiana’s role wouldn’t allow these events to go on in her life. We would imagine that she’d leave, or because this is a movie, maybe begin plotting a murder. Who knows? But in the eighteenth century, this isn’t how things worked. The Duchess is based on a biography of Georgiana, and I won’t doubt that it was accurate. However, staying true to the life of a person doesn’t necessarily make for an entertaining watch.
What results for us is something that isn’t particularly entertaining because nothing much ever happens. Georgiana is abused a whole lot, she takes it, nobody is punished for being in the “wrong,” and then the film just kind of ends without any true resolution. The title credits tell us how these people continued to lead their lives, but what they described, in regards to at least a couple of characters, could have been more interesting than what we just sat through for the past couple of hours. Grey becomes Prime Minister? Let’s hear that story. At least it might have something interesting in it in regards to how he managed to convince the public of his views.
The story is also not particularly unique. We’ve seen this type of film before, especially in period pieces. Nothing is done to dress it up or make it seem fresh, which means that besides nothing special happening, it feels as if we’ve seen it all before. This makes it feel double as weak as it might if it only had one of those elements, and this really drags The Duchess down.
The problem for me is that everything except for what events actually happen works well. The acting is good, the set design is beautiful, the production values are high — everything seems to work except for the story. From an outside perspective, this might seem like the film could be enjoyable. I mean, if 3/4 of the film works (to use an arbitrary number), then you should still have a good time, right?
Well, that’s not what happens. Having such little action, reaction, creativity, reasons to care, and other things that make a good story means that the film as a whole becomes tiresome, mundane and nothing special. You can have the best acting and set design in the world, but if your story is terrible or even just terribly uninspired, you’re not going hold your audience’s attention. That’s just about what happened here. You can tell there’s a good film waiting to be made with all of these factors, but Georgiana’s life story just isn’t begging to be told.
The characters lacked depth as well. Like I mentioned, the Duke is a one-note cutout, but many of the other characters are just as one-dimensional. Georgiana’s mother, Countess Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), serves the role of telling her daughter to do whatever her husband wants. Over and over she recites the same sort of story, and by the end, I wanted her out. Even the future Prime Minister spouts the same things in most of his scenes. The only real depth is given to the two females who end up living with the Duke, although since there’s some time devoted to female empowerment and equality, maybe giving the only depth of the film to the women was intentional. One can hope.
I’d like to reinforce that I don’t believe that The Duchess is a poorly made film. Most of the individual elements work, and the people involved in its creation did their jobs immaculately. I just don’t think that this material deserved a feature film, at least, not without significant changes to make a compelling or somewhat unique narrative. Since The Duchess misses that, the other parts are left hung out to dry, rendering the film as a whole not worth watching.