While watching “The Duchess,” a drama based on the true story of the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish, one may wonder, “Haven’t I seen this before?” “The Duchess” appears to be cut from the same cloth as “Marie Antoinette” (2006) and “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008). The plot is familiar: eighteenth century woman receives high profile offer to marry an older duke or king, cannot produce the treasured male heir and is trapped in a loveless marriage.
At the beginning, Georgiana’s (Keira Knightley) mother seals her fate by claiming to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) that their family has never failed to produce male children. The Duke, who sired a couple of illegitimate daughters and no sons, immediately agrees by saying, “so be it.” Thus Georgiana leaves behind her mother and country life to move to a grand home in the English countryside complete with servants and social obligations. While she easily steps into her social obligations, Georgiana cannot seem to adjust to her husband’s frequent philandering and dull personality. Moreover, within a year of their hasty marriage, the Duke brings his illegitimate daughter home with the expectation that Georgiana will raise the child and practice her mothering skills while she is bringing her own baby to term. The hardships continue to pile on as Georgina gives birth to a baby girl and then befriends a woman, Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), who betrays her soon after taking advantage of Georgiana’s kindness. Atwell walks the line between confidant and betrayer with admirable tact.
Though completely repulsed emotionally and physically by her husband, Georgiana does eventually give birth to a son. While seeking some solace in finally producing the much anticipated male heir, she makes heartbreaking sacrifices for her family that she seems barely capable of enduring. It is at these moments in the film when Knightley’s superior acting abilities are showcased. But waiting for the plot to pick up momentum could be likened to being a woman in the eighteenth century waiting for the right to vote: you hope it will happen, but it seems like a fruitless test of patience.
Although the big fancy gowns, elaborate undergarments and up-dos with six inches of curls piled on women’s heads catch one’s eye, and evoke the luxurious formality of centuries past, “The Duchess” has no defining qualities that separate it from other films of its ilk. The ending, which should have been heart wrenching, was about a passive resignation to the obligations and confinements of life, the control over which may not be yours. Keira Knightley, no stranger to assuming the role of an Englishwoman from centuries past (think “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”) grabs the audience with the pain and emotional agony of a forlorn woman, but it is not enough to rescue “The Duchess” from obscurity.