Scandalous Movie Review: The Duchess

Last Friday night I went to see The Duchess with one of my closest friends to cap off a pretty up and down week. I thought "hey a movie with pretty costumes, yeah!" Unfortunately there is only one word to describe this movie and that is adequate.

The plot in a nutshell involves a vibrant beauty, Lady Georgiana Spencer, who marries an older man, William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire and goes to live with him in his beautiful London mansion, Devonshire House. But she quickly learns that her husband prefers his dogs to her. She becomes a celebrity of her time and ends up trapped in an unhappy triangle with her husband and his live-in mistress. She falls passionately in love with an ambitious young politician, Charles Grey (later 2nd Earl Grey and Prime Minister, you know the one the tea is named after) and the affair causes a bitter conflict with her husband and threatens to erupt into a scandal.

Keira Knightley suffers beautifully as Georgiana but she is not given much more to do than to look hurt, and to be a clotheshorse. While she wears the costumes well, I was always conscious of how painfully thin she is, especially compared to the paintings of the real Georgiana. To her credit, she shows a hint of the charisma of the real Georgiana, and an appealing naiveté in the earlier scenes. However, at times one longs for an actress of Kate Winslet’s stature to take on Georgiana’s complex personality, a devoted mother, yet one who spent many hours gambling feverishly, a woman who could write a book at 21 satirizing the society that she lived in, yet couldn’t tear herself away from the fast element of the ton.

Ralph Fiennes managed to capture the essence of a man for whom duty and appearances were all. He acts with his entire body where as Knightley seems to act mostly with her jaw line. However, the writers have included a scene between the Duke and Duchess that I found inexplicable and hard to deal with. There is a brilliant moment towards the end of the film where husband and wife try to reach out to each other if only briefly. Hayley Atwell, as Lady Bess, is not really given much to hang her character on. Did Bess love the Duke, was she calculating, or did she have genuine affection for Georgiana? You couldn’t tell from the script or the acting.

There is no sense in the film of the jealousy that Bess must have felt towards Georgiana. Amanda Foreman writes that there was a sort of Single White Female attraction between the two women. While Bess loved Georgiana, she also wanted to be her, to be as popular, to set trends, to be universally loved. She even gave birth to a son before Georgiana did. Wouldn’t that have been a fabulous scene in the film? Bess made attempts to have the Duke place her in precedence to his wife, but the Duke refused, putting her in her place, which is the exact opposite of what occurs in the movie, when Georgiana angrily tells the Duke to get rid of Bess. There is one telling scene between the two women, where Bess and Georgiana talk about sex, that almost turns Sapphic but any hint of that is quickly abandoned. You do get the sense in the film at least that perhaps Bess was more skilled in the boudoir than Georgiana. Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey continues to prove that he is much better suited to contemporary films than he is to period pieces.

A movie of less than 2 hours can never hope to do justice to the complexities of the relationship between Georgiana, her husband, and Lady Bess Foster, nor does this movie even try. The film spends entirely too much time emphasizing the parallels between Georgiana and her however many greats niece, Lady Diana Spencer, future Princess of Wales. Hmm, let's see, both married older men who were emotionally distant, and who preferred the company of another woman, leaving the beautiful wife to flee into the arms of an adoring lover. However, Prince Charles never moved Camilla into Kensington or Buckingham Palace, forcing Diana to share living space with her rival. Nor were Camilla and Diana ever best friends the way Georgiana and Bess were. Georgiana also had fewer choices in life than Diana did.

The movie muddles up even the basic facts of the triangle. When Georgiana met Lady Bess in Bath in 1782, she had been married for about eight years, and had yet to have her first child. She had married the Duke just after her 17th birthday in 1774. It was considered a great match, uniting two great families, Spencer and the Cavendish. The fact that Georgiana had met the Duke only a handful of times didn’t matter. Her parents were quite keen on the match, and more than anything Georgiana wanted to please her parents. The Duke was 26, but while Georgiana came from a loving affectionate family, the Duke’s family was less so. Georgiana had the mistaken belief that the Duke had a similar temperament to her father, who was somewhat shy and awkward in public, but loving in private. Unfortunately she completely misjudged his character.

What the movie does get right is that Georgiana was hoping that taking the waters at Bath would help her to conceive. At the time that they met, Lady Elizabeth Foster and her sister, both separated from their husbands, were living in genteel poverty in Bath. She was daughter of the 4th Earl of Bristol, also known as the Earl Bishop because he had been a clergyman before he inherited the title (his elder brother Augustus John Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol was married to Elizabeth Chudleigh). The Hervey family has a history of eccentricity and pure looniness, the first Earl of Bristol's son Lord Hervey had a long affair with Stephen Fox Strangeways (Lady Victoria Hervey, sister of the current Marquess is Britain’s answer to Paris Hilton. Her late brother, the 7th Marquess, was a drug addict who went bankrupt.) When she was seventeen, Bess had married an Irish MP, John Foster. The marriage quickly went south, with infidelities on both sides. Soon the two women were bosom buddies, and Bess and the Duke were sharing long rides out in the countryside. Bess was hired initially as a governess to the Duke's illegitimate daughter Charlotte Williams, who she spent almost two years abroad with.

No one knows for sure when Lady Bess and the Duke became lovers. And Georgiana apparently didn't find out until it was revealed that Bess and the Duke had had a child together, Caroline St. Jules (who later married George Lamb, the brother-in-law of Lady Caroline Lamb). Bess seemed to fill a need in both the Duke and the Duchess. She gave Georgiana the affection and attention that she craved, and she seemed to be able to stroke the Duke's ego the way that Georgiana was incapable of doing. She was the linchpin that allowed the marriage to work between the Duke and Duchess. Instead in the movie, we never see the relationship develop between Bess and the Duke. Georgiana comes home one day and hears them in bed. When she asks Bess why, Bess explains her actions away by telling her that the Duke promised to help her gain access to her children (which for some reason the writers have given her three sons instead of two, perhaps to emphasize Georgiana's inadequacies more?). In reality, Bess's estranged husband kept her children away from her for 14 years.

The other problem with the movie is that the trio seemed to exist in a kind of bubble. The rest of Georgiana's, apart from her mother, doesn't exist in the film, nor does the Duke's. And how can they make a movie without the Prince of Wales? As a political hostess and Whig supporter, Georgiana was very close friends with the Prince of Wales, as was Charles James Fox. The Prince was an ardent Whig, primarily because his father George III loathed and despised the Whigs. Instead, the audience is introduced to Charles James Fox, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan who function as sort of lackeys to Georgiana, you know in between writing plays and governing.

There is hardly any mention of what was going on in the outside world apart from a brief mention of the Whigs supporting the Americans in the Revolution and a fleeting reference to the revolution in France. Georgiana's life as a political hostess was completely truncated; she makes one minor little speech introducing Charles Grey in the film. During her lifetime, Georgiana helped to campaign for the Whig candidates, up and down the country.

Nor does the audience get more than a glimpse of her gambling which was a serious addiction for her. During her lifetime, she was constantly fighting off her creditors, at certain points she owed over 100,000 pounds. She was also possibly anorexic or bulemic and addicted to opiates to deal with the hollowness of her life. She was also an author, who published her only novel at the age of twenty-one, as well as a poetess.

In the movie, Lord Charles Grey is depicted as her contemporary, when in reality he was 7 years her junior. When they met, she had finally given birth to two daughters, Little G and Harriet, always called Harryo, but the pressure to give birth to a son was overwhelming. Grey basically chased her, and she was flattered by his attentions. He wasn't her first affair, she'd already possibly been intimate with her good friend Charles James Fox, and she was very close to the Duke of Dorset, one of the great womanizers of the age (a man who had also had an affair with Bess). When the Duke tells Georgiana that she must end her relationship with Charles Grey because of the scandal, I had to laugh. As if living openly in a ménage a trois was not scandal enough?

What the movie does get right is the heartbreaking moment when Georgiana has to give up her child by Grey. For the one thing that Georgiana loved more than anything was her children. She was an unusual mother for the time because she insisted on breast-feeding all her children. She was such a remarkable mother, that one of her daughters writing her a letter when she was an adult and a mother herself, remarked on what an absolutely wonderful mother she was. The movie mentions almost as an afterthought that the Duke, Georgiana and Bess lived together for 25 years before the Duchess’s death in 1806. Three years after her death, Bess got her wish and became the new Duchess.

For audience members who know nothing of the real story, I'm sure this lackluster treatment will suffice. For those of us who have read Amanda Foreman's masterful biography, one longs for what might have been if the book had been given the same lavish treatment and care that John Adams and Queen Elizabeth I had been given in recent miniseries.

I can only give this film a C+


I wish they had made a miniseries. In fact, I feel most historical movies--whether biographies or period fiction--should be miniseries only, as a two hour film is rarely enough to tell the whole story and capture its nuances. The only historical movies that have worked for me have been contemporary-written works, such as The Illusionist(though the reign of Franz Josef II was rather vague) or The Prestige. I feel even Merchant-Ivory hasn't been able to successfully captured everything in their films.

I do want to see this, as I am a fan of Keira Knightley, and I want to at least show there is an audience for historical films. However, Hollywood is going to run the sub-genre into the ground with its attempts to dumb down history and its people to attract larger (and more often, younger) audiences.
Heather Carroll said…
I won't read your review except for the first paragraph and last grade because I'm trying so so hard to go in neutrally. But I am favoring it cos I am dying to read it :)

It's really unfair that the rest of america gets it Oct 9, grrr.
Bearded Lady said…
I was debating going to see this movie, but I still have the book Georgiana sitting in my bookcase and have yet to read it. I think I will read the book first. I hate when hollywood mucks up the facts.

I am a big fan of Keira Knightley too so I am looking forward to seeing her performance...even if the movie is a bit dull.
I really like Keira Knightley too, however I feel she's still too young to do justice to a role like this. She just doesn't have the life experience to portray a woman like Georgiana yet. She manages to capture the innocence of Georgiana in the beginning, and the spirit but she's no match for Ralph Fiennes.

La Belle Americaine, I enjoyed The Illusionist too, although it was kind of crap history as well. I'm glad that I went to see the film, even though I was disappointed in the end. I just felt after the seven hours that HBO invested in John Adams, at least 4 could have been devoted to Georgiana by the BBC or ITV, instead of remaking Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Oliver Twist for the 18th time.
Great review, by someone familiar with the story of the real Georgiana. Yes, from the book I had the impression that Georgiana wanted Bess to stay around, no matter what.

Elizabeth, I am so glad you mentioned Kate Winslet since she is the one whom I pictured in the role, having more of a range than Keira Knightley. Keira is just too thin for any eighteenth century role.
That was actually one of the biggest problems that I had with her performance. I wish that the director had suggested that she gain at least ten pounds to play the role, so that she filled out the costumes better. The standard of beauty in that age was not skinny minnies, and Georgiana from her portraits was definitely not a twig.
I do want to see this movie, and everything I hear about it sounds so dreary! And with a character like Georgiana, too. What a shame...
It is a shame. Georgiana is spectacular character and I weep when I think what a really great actress like Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet could have done with the part.

Elizabeth, I understand that the Duke is shown raping Georgiana in the film. Was that in the book? I may have missed it. Have you ever read anything about such physical abuse really happening to her? If he did do that to her, it would explain some of her heavy drinking and other self-destructive behaviors.
Elena, I just re-read Amanda Foreman's biography and there is nothing to suggest that the Duke was physically abusive to Georgiana. In the movie, that scene was supposed to demonstrate the Duke's control over Georgiana. It comes after she tries to get the Duke to force Bess to leave. That too was never mentioned in Amanda Foreman's book. By the time Bess came into their lives, Georgiana had given up any hope of the Duke loving her. Her only concern was giving him an heir at that point.

Catherine, while the movie has a great deal of problems, I'm hoping that viewers will be moved to seek out the biography after seeing it, so that they can learn the true story of Georgianna's life, and not just the superficial treatment Hollywood has given her.
Eliza Knight said…
What a shame! I had looked forward to seeing it. I'll wait until it comes out on DVD.

On another note, this was the best movie review I've ever read! Not only did you share you view on the movie but you gave us a history lesson, which of course is my favortie part!

Thanks Eliza. When I decided to write the review, I felt that since I knew so much about Georgiana, I needed to talk about the ways in which the filmmakers distort Georgiana's life. I do believe it is worth seeing if only for the costumes and the beautiful houses.

I'm always of two minds with films about historical personages, I'm glad that they are being made, but I get frustrated when they change things. Inevitably what they change it to is less dramatic then the truth.
Thanks, Elizabeth, it is as I thought. I think that in this case, sticking with the facts would have made for a more interesting film. A woman can be deeply unhappy in a marriage to a controlling husband without necessarily suffering from physical abuse.
I'm not a screenwriter, but you have to wonder sometimes at the choices they make when they adapt historical biographies. The historical record is always more fascinating. I would have loved to have seen more scenes of the toll not being able to bear a child took on her before she gave birth to her first two children. Still the costumes were pretty, and you get a taste of the grandeur and the emptiness of their lives, despite the status of being a Duke and Duchess.
Heather Carroll said…
I finally read this, woo!

I think you summed everything up beautifully. I'm in the process of dividing my review into two because I was never good with abbreviated writing- such a bad blogger. Great review, Elizabeth!
Thanks Heather! I just read your review and I agree completely, that there are two different Georgiana's, the movie version and the real one, and you don't get much of the real one in the movie. I see that you liked it a bit more than me. I think my expectations were just a bit too high given the level of talent in the film.

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