Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Duchess (Paramount Vantage/Pathé/BBC, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I ran a quite remarkable recent movie, The Duchess, an historical drama set in late 18th century England and centered around Georgiana (Keira Knightley), whose name is not pronounced “Geor-gee-aah-nuh” but “George-A-nuh,” with a long “a” sound like the “a” in “face.” She was a real-life character and apparently an accomplished writer, musician, linguist (she spoke four languages) and political campaigner who got shunted off at 17 into a loveless marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) and quickly found out that in the male-dominated society of her time she had no rights whatsoever. I was attracted to this movie through an interesting route; a few months ago Charles and I had seen an exhibit of late 18th century British portraits at the San Diego Museum of Art and one of them had been of the real Georgiana — and the museum’s note had not only told some of her story but mentioned that it had been filmed. Though the movie — directed by Saul Dibb and written by him with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen from a 1998 biography of Georgiana by Amanda Foreman — didn’t exactly dwell on Georgiana’s intellectual and cultural accomplishments (and it might have been a stronger movie if it had — I couldn’t help but think what a 1930’s version with the young Katharine Hepburn as Georgiana might have been like), one thing it did do was all too vividly dramatize the Kafka-esque plight of a woman — even an intelligent woman who as part of the aristocracy was a member of the 1 percent of her time both by birth (as part of the Spencer family that several generations later gave the world Princess Diana) and by marriage — in that era.

Not only could she not vote (though she could and did campaign for her husband’s Whig Party, which as one of its key leaders says in the movie believed in “freedom in moderation” — i.e., giving the common people a few more rights but nothing even resembling economic, social or civil equality), she had utterly no right to refuse her husband sex and she couldn’t have a lover even though her husband was cheating on her right and left. He even seduces Georgiana’s best friend, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) — later Bess tearfully confesses to Georgiana that she yielded to the Duke’s advances because she had left her husband after he’d regularly beaten her, but he had retaliated by refusing to let her see her children, and the Duke had said that if she had sex with him he’d use his superior rank and influence to reunite Bess and her kids — and when Georgiana takes a lover of her own, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), and wants to leave the Duke for him (not surprisingly since with him she’s had the first sexual experiences of her life that were genuinely enjoyable), the Duke threatens to make sure she never gets to see her children again unless she abandons Grey, returns to the Duke and maintains the illusion of a happy marriage in public.

Though the Princess Di parallels aren’t hammered home (and Keira Knightley said she played Georgiana as a character in her own right and did not think of paralleling her to Diana in her acting), they’re unmistakable: both women trapped in unhappy negotiated marriages; both with incredible, almost cult-like followings among the commoners; both anxious to use whatever influence they have for the benefit of society in general and its lowest members in particular (to the supercilious politician who says he and his fellow Whigs believe in “freedom in moderation,” Georgiana fires back, “The concept of freedom is an absolute”) — so much so that at one point the Duke confronts his wife and, when she tells him she loves Charles Grey, he replies, “I do not doubt it; he is a dreamer like yourself. You both dream of another world that does not exist, and never will.” At a time like the present, with the Right in ascendancy over American politics and preaching a cult of the strong that exalts material success (however gained) and regards the superiority of people with money to people without it as a fact as well established as that the sun rises in the east in the morning and sets in the west at night, the Duke’s line — especially as delivered by Ralph Fiennes in the haughty, supercilious, implacably self-righteous tone his character maintains from first to last —sent cold nails through my own heart and reminded me of Tony Kushner’s line in the play A Bright Room Called Day that the ideals of the Left are always the most beautiful ideals of their time — with the implication, all too obvious in a play that takes place in Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover, that they are also doomed never to be fulfilled because the beauty of the Left will inevitably be crushed by the unscrupulous cruelty of the Right.

That’s a bit of an overdramatization but The Duchess is an excellent movie, with a fine cast of British actors (and one non-British “ringer,” Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana’s mother, especially strong in the chilling opening scene in which she and the Duke are negotiating her daughter’s marriage to him with all the passion and sensitivity of two people negotiating the sale of real estate) managing at once to convince us that they’re living in another time and place and that that time and place, however remote it may seem from our own (particularly relevant to this story is how the social, political and civil rights of women have dramatically improved since then — but full equality of the genders remains as remote as full equality of the classes or races), is enough like ours that the tale they’re telling remains relevant today. Physically, The Duchess suffers from an especially acute case of the past-is-brown look but certainly looks credible as the 18th century (the fact that most of the buildings the actual story took place in still survive and the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire made them available to the movie company helps a great deal), and overall it’s a remarkable movie that deserved to be better known.