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Will someone put the Duchess’s hair out?

Posted on December 15th, 2010 by annakjarzab

So last night I watched The Duchess. You remember The Duchess? It came out this year (I think…?) and it starred the Period Piece Wonder, Kiera Knightley, Voldemort himself Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper (who will never be attractive to me ever, even ripped or in a wig or not in a wig), and lots of children because OMG so many children in this movie! People had a lot of children back then, especially when they were randomly having quasi-polygamous marriages and/or affairs every five seconds. The good old days!

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Anyway, if you don’t know, The Duchess is about Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who lived at approximately the same time as Marie Antoinette, was friends with her, and had a lot in common with her (fashion, gambling, a famously tabloidesque lifestyle, complete ridiculousness when it comes to money in general), but the movie doesn’t touch on that at all, which is really too bad, but it had a lot of wigs to set on fire, so we have to forgive it. So many wigs, so little time! There were a lot of wigs in this movie, ALMOST as many wigs as children, plus if you count the Whigs who were in this movie, the number goes up, so. I can tell this “review” is already getting out of hand.

Georgiana (pronounced George-AY-na, because I don’t know why; when I first heard it, I was like, “Hm, that actor is pronouncing it weird,” but then they all pronounced it weird, when they weren’t just flat out calling her “G”, so that’s that, I guess) was married at a very early age (17, which is actually not that young for back then, seeing as Marie Antoinette was married to Louis when she was fourteen) to the cold, boring Duke of Devonshire. The Duke is unimpressed with his wife and more interested in his dogs, especially when Georgiana only manages to have two daughters (not counting the daughter that he fathered with a maid that she then had to take care of!) and no sons. He is not happy about this, as evidenced by the fact that they traveled in different carriages that one time, and also that he decides that Georgiana’s best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster, who has been tossed out of her house and kept away from her children by her abusive husband and now lives with them, is going to be his second wife–not just his mistress, but basically ANOTHER WIFE! Georgiana is mad for about five seconds, but then gets over it, because she’d really like to take a second husband–Charles Gray (EARL GRAY, like the tea), who is a Whig politician who hopes to be Prime Minister some day. This is where Dominic Cooper comes in, completely unconvincing as a politician, a Prime Minister candidate, a person living in the 1780s, or a man you would ever want to have an affair with ever. The Duke, as you can imagine, is hypocritically NOT ON BOARD with this plan, but then he tells her that if she gives him a son she can do as she pleases. FAMOUS LAST LIES!

So Georgiana gives him a son and she assumes that then she should be able to conduct her life however she pleases. Her sister-wife, Elizabeth, gets Gray to come over and give G the business, and they have an affair until the Duke finds out and is, again, and not surprisingly, NOT ON BOARD. He threatens that if she doesn’t stop seeing Gray he’ll destroy Gray’s political career and also keep her children away from her as long as he lives and breathes. First she picks Gray, but then quickly decides that’s crazy and picks her kids, ending her affair with Gray, but not before SHE BEARS HIS ILLEGITIMATE CHILD in some drafty house in France or whatever and is forced to give it away to Gray’s parents who raise her as Gray’s sister. Fabulous! Royals are so good at family values, you guys, it’s amazing we don’t still have more monarchies.

There’s a softball “bittersweet” ending and the obligatory biopic text-on-screen informing us that Gray did eventually become Prime Minister, Georgiana died early (48) and with her blessing her sister-wife became the only wife (a.k.a. the new Duchess of Devonshire), and that Georgiana visited her illegitimate daughter Eliza in secret (which, from perusing the Wikipedia page, seems to be kind of not true? Since Eliza didn’t know G was her mother until after G was dead? But why quibble).

This movie was problematic for so many reasons. I’m not Dr. Biopic or anything, but I think they’re supposed to, like, explore the character and internal struggles of the people they’re biopicking* instead of basically presenting a time line of sadsauce moments in their life and going LOOK HOW SAD and also how many wigs can we set on fire? Because guys:

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This was the point where I thought, “Okay, this movie is hella stupid.”

Say whatever you want about the Sophia Coppola Marie Antoinette that I love so much, but that movie had style, man. It was pretty and silly and interesting and vibrant and fun to watch. This was just a tableau of Kiera Knightley in some dresses and wigs (only some of which were set on fire!) making constipated expressions that were supposed to denote anguish. I mean, yes, it sounds like G got screwed in many ways (especially the marriage department, because woof), as women tended to do back then, but also she had a pretty sweet life. She was crazy rich and it wasn’t like Dominic Cooper Gray was her only lover, she went to tons of parties and hobnobbed with the elite, and she got to wear a lot of cool dresses and wigs (only some of which were set on fire!). I’m not trying to be unsympathetic here, but if you’re going to call the movie The Duchess, perhaps you should spend more time exploring who she really was on a deeper level than you do on telling us the Duke really really loved his dogs. We get it! He thinks his dogs are the best! Fair enough, dogs are awesome. But it’s really not the focal point of the movie, or it shouldn’t be, unless you changed the movie title to The Duke and His Dogs, in which case go for it, but I doubt anyone would pay to see that movie.

I think probably Georgiana was a lot of fun, to be honest, and they don’t show that at all. Despite how grotesquely rich and out of touch she was, given how she was also so political, people loved her! She had lots of friends and was very popular, but the only nod to the fact that G was the life of the party was: A. When sister-wife Elizabeth (pre-sister-wifedom) tells Gray (pre-affair) that “The Duke is the only person not in love with his wife,” and B. when her wig gets set on fire (do I have to tell you that she was drunk at the time? Well, she was). Did she never have fun? Wasn’t she maybe a little bit vain? Why was she so political and how instrumental was she in actually getting people elected? I just don’t buy this presentation of Georgiana as this Ultimate Tragic Female, in the way that I don’t buy Marie Antoinette as one, though I certainly understand that not everything in her life (especially that bit at the end) was easy.

The Duchess isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just not a very good one. Like The Other Boleyn Girl, it seems to serve only to give us a lot of pretty period outfits to look at, which is nice and all, I appreciate that, but if it can’t be deep, it should be fun, and it was neither. Still, it’s available on Netflix Watch Instantly, so if you have a spare two hours and need something to put on in the background while you’re sorting laundry, it’s a pretty decent option. Or you could watch Penelope, which is also on Watch Instantly and stars James McAvoy and which I also watched last night, for the eleventy billionth time (exact number). You know what The Duchess could’ve used? James McAvoy.

*Not a word.

3 Responses to “Will someone put the Duchess’s hair out?”

mary on December 15th, 2010 at 6:46 am Said:

bio NIT pic ! amirite?

Barbara on December 15th, 2010 at 9:13 am Said:

Great review Anna. Makes me actually want to watch this movie despite Kiera Knightly.

Sidsel on December 18th, 2010 at 3:05 pm Said:

I´ll watch anything with Keira Knightley. The best Elizabeth Bennet!

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