Oh, my dearest lady, what horrible burdens you suffer!
How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes
Rated: PG-13 (and a strong one, at that)
Red Flags: Several Scenes Of Sexuality (including sexual assault!), Partial Nudity
I will freely admit my love of 18th Century culture, so at least you know I'm coming into this film with a bias towards the beauty of the era: its magnificent polonaise dresses, elaborate jackets, lace ruffled shirts, silk clocked stockings, glistening jewelry, powdered wigs, ponytails with ribbons and, of course, three-cornered hats.
So it's all the more ironic and saddening in a time where ladies and gentlemen exchange bows and curtsies and manners are de rigeur to see aristocrats treating noble ladies as little more than devices to advance their goals. Such is the life of Georgianna Spencer, the Duchess of Devonshire (Knightley) in 1700's England. She is excited to be married off to the Duke (Fiennes) until she finds herself trapped in a loveless relationship to a philandering spouse. He cares more about his dogs and wants only two things from her: a male heir and obedience.
The marriage is in trouble from the consummation forward, and it doesn't get better as she bears him three daughters -- whom she's caring for in addition to an illegitimate child from one of the Duke's flings. Her Grace is no wilting flower, though, and she quickly becomes popular in social circles. It doesn't hurt that she wears the finest of fashion and is a regular gambler. (The film doesn't mention Georgianna's gaming debts, which were quite substantial.) She also has a sharp mind for politics, which attracts the attention of the growing Whig party, angling for control of Parliament.
The Duchess also finds a friend and soul mate in Lady Bess, who has left home after being beaten by her husband -- which, sadly, was legal in 1700's England if you used a small enough stick. Georgianna invites her to live with her and the Duke at their magnificent home. Given his lustful eyes, it's not a hard sell. You can guess what happens. Worse, Georgianna can't force Bess from the home, leading to a lot of awkward meals.
Looking for love, our beleaguered Duchess has been eyeing and assisting Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a Whig politician who longs to be prime minister. She longs to be with him, but the Duke rejects her "deal" of letting them share passion in the same way the Duke has had with Bess. She can't even leave him, either, or risk never seeing her children again -- the same dilemma Lady Bess once faced. Worst of all, Georgianna's mother (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to stand up for her own daughter, concerned more about scandal and status than the happiness of her child. You wonder how she could take the side of this cad people constantly refer to as "Your Grace."
The Duchess is a about a woman who has a glorious burden, doing everything that is expected of her as an aristocrat and seeking love and admiration. But the only love she's getting is from her many admirers and her children, neither of whom are aware or can do anything to help her escape the prison of her life. It is beautifully costumed and wigged. Knightly wears a hairpiece at least two feet tall in one scene, making me wonder how women of that era could hold their heads up high under such a burden, in addition to all those other burdens.
The late lamented Princess Diana is a direct descendant of the Spencer family. She too had the burden of a philandering husband and the white-hot spotlight. History not only repeats, it passes down its genes.
UPDATE: Please see the comments, as Lady Elizabeth provides some excellent perspective on 18th century women and marriage, and why they accepted loveless arrangements. She also linked me to a highly informative digest of 18th Century life in England from the University Of Michigan.
More on Her Grace here.