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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Duchess (2008)

PUBLISHED: 18:24 18 October 2018

Keira Knightley as Georgiana, with best-friend Bess (Hayley Atwell), in the bio-pic The Duchess. Photo: Pathe

Keira Knightley as Georgiana, with best-friend Bess (Hayley Atwell), in the bio-pic The Duchess. Photo: Pathe

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Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Keira Knightley as the independent-minded Duchess of Devonshire, with her lover, rising politician Charles Gray (Dominic Cooper) in The Duchess. Photo: PatheKeira Knightley as the independent-minded Duchess of Devonshire, with her lover, rising politician Charles Gray (Dominic Cooper) in The Duchess. Photo: Pathe

The Duchess; dir: Saul Dibb; starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, Andrew Armour, Richard McCabe, Angus McEwan, Georgia King, Bruce Mackinnon Cert: 15 (2008)

The Duchess is a bio-pic with a difference. It’s an extraordinary film about an extraordinary woman, in an extraordinary relationship and had an extraordinary influence on British politics and yet chances are, if you haven’t seen the film then you will not have heard of her.

Keira Knightley as Georgiana, the independent-minded Duchess of Devonshire, entertaining friends at a family party in The Duchess. Photo: PatheKeira Knightley as Georgiana, the independent-minded Duchess of Devonshire, entertaining friends at a family party in The Duchess. Photo: Pathe

Most bio-pics are about people who all ready have a public profile. The marketing for the movie is all ready built-in. The Duchess is different. You come away from this film thinking: “Wow, why didn’t we know all this before now?”

The film tells the story of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, billed by the film-makers at the time as the 18th century ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, which immediately invited audiences to compare life stories.

However, The Duchess isn’t a soap opera. It’s not even a twee period romance – it’s something more earthy and real than that. It’s about an intelligent, strong-minded character, who finds herself married off at 16, by a socially ambitious mother, Lady Spencer (Rampling), to an emotionally constipated aristocrat, William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, (Fiennes), who just happens to be the richest man in Britain.

Keira Knightley as Georgiana, with her  husband William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) at a family party in the bio-pic The Duchess. Photo: PatheKeira Knightley as Georgiana, with her husband William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) at a family party in the bio-pic The Duchess. Photo: Pathe

It’s clear from the beginning that the man has no personality, no conversation, no real interest in other people, and certainly no interest in her. All he wants is a male heir.

Although, Georgiana is bright, witty, beautiful and charms all his friends, she is all but disregarded when she only produces daughters.

It’s not long before the taciturn Cavendish starts an affair with Georgiana’s best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster (Atwell), who just happens to be the daughter of Frederick Hervey, the Earl of Bristol, owner of the Ickworth estate outside Bury St Edmunds.

Keira Knightley as Georgiana, the independent-minded Duchess of Devonshire, with her cold husband William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes)  in the bio-pic The Duchess. Photo: PatheKeira Knightley as Georgiana, the independent-minded Duchess of Devonshire, with her cold husband William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) in the bio-pic The Duchess. Photo: Pathe

What started as an affair swiftly turns into a three-way polyamorous relationship with the Duke and his two sexual partners all living under the same roof with their attendant children.

In the beginning Georgiana is understandably resentful of Bess’ relationship with her husband, not necessarily of his sexual relationship, but because he has effectively robbed her of her one close friend.

It is at this point that Georgiana is reunited with a childhood friend Charles Grey (Cooper) and not only finds her voice but also a purpose to life away from The Duke.

She finds that she and Charles are kindred spirits. The film makes clear, as do real-life documents, that she was a supporter of the American and French revolutions, a campaigner for Whig prime minister Charles Fox and the lover of another in waiting (Charles Grey). She even bore him a daughter.

She quickly scandalised respectable society by becoming an outspoken liberal, advising on policy and election issues, even appearing alongside Fox and Grey on the hustings.

She learned to use her beauty, wit and celebrity to fight for what she believed in and a desire to improve the lot of women in society.

Even though celebrity turned to notoriety Georgiana appeared not to care – not until William Cavendish callously chooses to prevent access to her children. This action, designed to bring her to heel, makes new allies of former friends Georgiana and Bess Foster.

Director Saul Dibb has created a visually sumptuous film, driven by a compelling storyline and packed with characters which are vividly drawn and engaging. All four leads create very believable characters, even Fiennes’ remote, buttoned-up William Cavendish is multi-dimensional enough not to be taken as a pantomime villain while his menage-a-trois living arrangements are presented in an uncomfortably straight-forward way.

The Duchess is dark and uplifting in equal measure and leaves you marvelling at the inner strength of a remarkable woman.

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