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January 15, 2009

The Duchess – movie review

Keira Knightley is probably getting tired of spending all her on-screen time in corsets, but personally I hope she keeps up the good work. I had high hopes for The Duchess just from the previews; thankfully, the film delivered in full. It is extremely hard sometimes to sit through films that are based on true stories; this story, however, was riveting.

In The Duchess, which I had a chance to view this weekend, Knightley plays Georgiana, who becomes Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage to William, Duke of Devonshire, played by Ralph Fiennes. Georgiana’s virginity assured by her mother, the Duke and Georgiana are married; very soon after, Georgiana’s girlish dreams of a romantic marriage are dashed by the reality of her brutish husband’s ways.

What Georgiana did not understand, prior to her marriage, that it was actually less of a “marriage” and more of a legally-binding contract, where she is expected to produce a male heir, be loyal to her husband, and not cause any trouble. Daughter after daughter, miscarriages and sillbirths, Georgiana undergoes “the cure” in Bath to ensure a male heir for her joyless, uncaring, selfish husband. While at Bath she meets Lady Bess (Haley Atwell); this meeting proves to be pivotal to the course of the film.
**Spoilers** This film goes far beyond your typical period piece; this film delves into those parts of history that make us shudder and shake our heads today. We see a bright, beautiful girl transformed into an angry, hurt, lonely woman. We a see a rich (by proxy) and powerful (by proxy) woman held hostage by her own husband, with no rights to protect herself or her children from his whims and tempers. We see the bright spark in Georgiana’s eyes snuffed out, and replaced by a dull, vacuous expression that leaves viewers seething at the inequalities depicted in this film.

The truth is, in the 18th century, women in “good” positions were no better off than women in “bad” positions. Women were women, regardless of status, and that means they were not even citizens. Forbidden from having their own love affairs, they had to sit idly by while their husbands consorted with a mistress – or several. If they chose to leave, they would be forced to forfeit their rights to their children; the law was on their side.

It was eye-opening for me; I suppose I always assumed that women of higher status had more rights than women of lower status. However, upon reflection, it seems that women of higher status might have actually had it worse than their lower-status counterparts. Women at the bottom of the rung have far less to lose than women at the top; there is reputation to think about, after all. A lower-status woman, accustomed to working for wages, could at least entertain the idea of supporting herself if her husband proves to be a brute; how is a higher-ranking woman, trained for nothing, to support herself? If she tried to leave with her children, how would she support them?

The Duchess might have been the story of one woman, Georgiana, but I think truly it was the story of many women of that time. Some may argue that gender equality today still falls short, but I’d say compared to poor Georgiana, we’re doing alright for ourselves. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that I was moved, profoundly. Recommended? Definitely.

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