Posted by: Dr P | July 11, 2008

The Duchess

When I first heard that there was a film called “The Duchess” I assumed it would be some East End gangster epic about a cafe owning queen of London crime starring Babs Windsor and half the cast of Eastenders. However, when I heard that Keira Knightley was to star, my suspicions were removed. It’s a safe bet that any period drama worth its salt will involve our Keira, although “Domino” was a departure for the young actress, and I have heard it said that Keira’s “Hole” is well worth a view.

This movie follows the fortunes of a young girl who is an ancestor of that other queen of hearts, Princess Di. Born into aristocracy, the young Georgina is a pretty and popular teenager. The similarities do not end there. Oh no. She is married off at a young age to the Duke of Devonshire, with the sole intention of bearing him a male heir. She subsequently assumes little importance in her husband’s life and takes many lovers. She also becomes an important and charismatic public figure. She even manages to conceive a child to another man (the author would like to stress that in no way is that intended to be a sideways dig at Prince Harry or his father, James Hewitt).

The Duke is a cold and arrogant man, beautifully acted by Ralph Fiennes, best known of late as Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort. The scaly skin and fake nose have been replaced here by some wonderfully understated acting, and possibly the best series of conversational snorts and “hmm”s you’ll ever hear. This is a man that makes Emmerdale’s Seth look like a witty raconteur. He is a cold and callous individiual, who takes on a lover of his own, the quite exquisite Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell). Much of the movie focuses on this trio of individuals – Bess was initially a true friend to the Duchess but having been bedded by the Duke, she takes over his affections, and Keira is left to seek solace in the world of politics and in the arms of future Prime Minster Charles Grey – Grey is played by Mamma Mia’s Dominic Cooper, and for much of the film I kept expecting him to tear off his splendid wig and belt out a classic or two from the Swedish supergroup. Alas, tis not to be.

The film spans a number of superb locations, from the grand houses of London and Bath to the country manors in which the unhappy couple make their home. The costumes are also superb, and it’s a safe bet that an Oscar nod will be heading the way of that department. But the real star of the movie is Knightley. She gives a stellar performance as the Duchess, both as the downtordden wife and the popular public figure. The sparkle in her eyes betrays the enjoyment she clearly had in making this movie, and it’s one of her best performances to date. Fiennes is delightful and by the end of the movie you understand that behind his cold facade he is a deeply troubled and passionate man, whilst Atwell and Cooper play valuable supporting roles. Atwell’s dress also makes a top supporting role 😉

If you like your period dramas, this is a must-see movie. It’s good escapism, even if some of the scenes and themes (marital rape, oppression, domestic violence) are a little harsh. Plus it’s fun looking out for al the Princess Di similarities. Short of throwing in a final scene involving a carriage being driven into a tunnel wall, it’s all here!

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