Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell
As history has proven time and time again, different standards exist for men and women on a societal level among others. Things are not exactly equal now, but the time period where the Duchess takes place certainly elevates the inequality to an unfortunate degree. With it following the real-life story of this progressive lady, it eloquently displays that no matter the popularity or standing, women have a ceiling larger society prevents them from eclipsing.
Young Georgiana (Keira Knightley) comes from a modest household but gains the affections of the Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes). He proposes marriage, which she gleefully accepts with the duty of eventually giving him a male heir. With her initial struggles to accept the parameters of her new position, rifts begin to form between them as extramarital affairs begging to form for both of them.
Becoming a Duchess presents opportunities Georgiana never thought were possible with the adoration she receives and the lavish lifestyle she gets to enjoy. However, marrying into this role comes with a level of scrutiny she has never experienced before. Everything she states publicly gets heard whether it be to support her causes or hurt her. Beside it all is her place as a woman in this society and Georgiana certainly pushes the limits to see how much she can get away with. Her first big move in garnering attention is helping amplify the message of Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) as he has a strong voice, but it does not have nearly the reach of Georgiana, who has the title of the Duchess of Devonshire. This demonstrates the power she can flex in this society and how she uses it to her distinct advantage.
Regardless, the deal she made to marry into this position remains to provide a male heir to William, which begins to show the cracks of their failed marriage. Georgiana must put up with so much with the demands put on her. It may be a bit ridiculous to state considering she does live a lavish life where she does not have to worry about having food on the table or any dangers individuals from a lower socioeconomic level have fret about. It still does not take away from the lack of freedom she truly has because of the structure set in place by tradition where the brides of these dukes serve to produce children and not embarrass them. Georgiana happens to be struggling in both facets with the latter coming from her political activity and the relationship she fosters with Charles Grey.
As the story continues to unravel, it further displays the time period and the political ramification of the conversations held. Georgiana develops a particular interest in the idea of freedom both in the country and overseas with this story taking place in the late 18th century. If you dust off the old history books, you’ll be able to recollect what was occurring in that time period with England and its colonies. She uses her voice but in a matter that draws unwanted attention towards her, which shifts her to becoming an embarrassment to her husband. The severity of that might as well have been murder in this society.
Aside from her willingness to speak on matters important to her, relationship dynamics play a major part because it’s shown that William does not make for a good husband emotionally and in the arena of fidelity. Georgiana first notices it but does not have much power to demand it to stop because of where she sits on the social ladder. This only gets worse when she tries to pursue her own interests and does not get the same level of leeway from her husband and the people around her. This area is where The Duchess falls into the tragic area of its story and truly shows the unfair expectations of the female population, particularly in the aristocracy. Proximity to power is all someone like Georgiana can achieve and the story makes it very clear.
Keira Knightley puts in yet another strong period piece performance as Georgiana with her demonstrating why she enjoys those flowy dresses and wigs. She matches up well with her impressive supporting cast, which includes Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, and several others. Some fit the era more than others but they each match the emotional level needed for their characters in a meaningful way. Ralph Fiennes, in particular, carries this shame over his face for most of the film and we know why when discovering his infidelity but he also represents a man with large expectations on his shoulder and must act in a certain way for respectability purposes. Fiennes steps up to the opportunity and goes toe-to-toe with Knightley to really elevate the material.
With beautiful dresses and plenty of scandals, The Duchess provides everything a period piece should and tells a tragic story in a proficient manner. It’s all anchored by Keira Knightley and the work she does as Georgiana, but everything else in the story manages to reach her level, especially the production design. Lavish in appearance but toxic internally, this society does incredible damage to women, especially those unafraid to speak their mind and this film fiercely presents just that.