If you’re anything like me, you know the pinnacle moment when Autumn begins in England. Other than the obvious rainy days, daylight getting scarce and pulling out your winter clothes in preparation for the impending freezing temperatures, TV programmes seemingly get better with the run up to Christmas. Or more specifically, a period drama is aired. Downton Abbey has returned to our screens for the third series, and with the shocking departure of the character Sybil that caused me to blub my heart out, I thought I’d indulge myself in a day of reflecting back to a more romantic time. The Duchess seemed the most appropriate choice. I love this film but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. This is because it ticks some boxes of mine in the guilty pleasures department, and this is without me even watching it! It’s a period drama, tick. An English period drama, tick. It depicts the scandalous yet fabulous life of Georgiana Cavenish, The Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century, tick. Now, up until the latter I’ve probably described what half of England would say is their guilty pleasure genre, and maybe even America’s (I’ve heard they’ve gone crazy over our Crawley family) but my appeal to this film is majorly focused on the latter. Georgiana Cavendish is an aristocrat and a figure in history that I am infatuated by so it’s no surprise that I would have watched, bought and re-watched this film over and over again.
“When she appeared every eye was turned towards her, when absent she was the subject of universal conversation.”
The Duchess is based on the Amanda Foreman biography of the Duchess of Devonshire herself. Georgiana Cavendish on the front did what society expected of her. She was of an aristocratic bloodline,yet unlike many women of her position, she pushed the boundaries. It would seem she did not want to accept how her life was once married and looked elsewhere to fulfil it, evidently leading her to adultery and politics. She was loved by everyone except her own husband and the film shows how her need to be wanted led to her celebrity status in high society and the unfortunate consequences of this. In fact she became the most influential woman of her time, mainly for her fashion and wit and was one of the first woman recorded to become involved in political activism.
The successful interpretation of this story is largely due to the portrayal of the characters. The Duchess is played by Keira Knightly. Although it seems she has been typecast in these period roles (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina), which many critics believe is due to her crisp British accent and her svelte frame, which undoubtedly help, but I think of they were to put those aspects aside, they would genuinely see how superbly she portrays this type of character. In this instance, she embraces Georgiana’s confidence, independence and lustfulness, whilst also maintaining her naivety of age and femininity of the time. She manages to play an adulterur whilst keeping the audience sympathetic towards her situation and aware of her status in society. She also depicts how well Georgiana dealt with the infidelities of her husband the Duke, and in doing so conveys the drastic and brutal differences between men and women at this time to the audience.
Keira is also supported by the wonderful Dominic Cooper. Despite his cringe-worthy performance in Mama Mia, he is still one of my favourite actors. I first fell for his bad boy yet gentlemanly manner in The History Boys, which he seemed to carry over to his role in the BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (if you are not aware of this I highly recommend watching it) playing Mr Willoughby. This obviously prepared him well to play the great Charles Grey in The Duchess. I not only felt myself falling for his portrayal again but I also felt myself routing for Georgiana and Grey, rather than wanting Grey all to myself. I will however remark that his public speaking as Charles Grey was rather disappointing. I will even say to the point of awful taking into consideration that Charles Grey went on to become Prime Minister.
Where The Duchess differs from most period dramas is that it is based on factual events and actualities of life at that time. In this story there was no happily ever afters or fiction solving problems. The Duchess is perhaps how many of these period dramas would have played out in real life.