Ralph Fiennes as Duke telling the Duchess he does not make deals; why should he? Keira Knightley as the powerless stunned wife listening (The Duchess)
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve returned to my movie studying project (right now I’m watching films and making notes towards a revision of a chapter on Andrew Davies and the 2008 S&S), and as a sort of control film, what an Austen film is not, I re-watched The Duchess, directed by Saul Dibb, screenplay Jeffrey Hatcher, Saul Dibb, and Anders Thomas, produced by Gabriella Tana and Michael Kuhn (among others), featuring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling and Dominic Cooper. I also watched the features (one of Foreman reading aloud from the letters), another on the costumes and production design and a final one emphasizing the position of women at the time.
I had only watched the film once before, written a blog, but knew I should re-see it. I now realize how inadequate was my take. Yes it’s unlike Amanda Foreman’s book but in a good way: Foreman’s book is a mildly feminist one: she values the woman at the center and shows her to have led an intelligent life well lived and been a fine writer (especially of letters). But Foreman goes no more and even (I think backtracks) to suggest the system at the time was not inimical to women. I had written a foremother poet (and writer) blog about the real Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, but not considered the film seriously.
The movie is a strongly protest one with a heavily outlined feminist fable at the center. Its done very formally and at times strong stylization which makes the scenes more acceptable in their absoluteness. The characters are continually given either-or choices: the either/or is obey the conventions and authority figures or these people (the mother of the duchess, the duke she marries) will destroy you. We see her married to the duke and simply taken by him as an object, we see him rape her brutally; we see his utter indifference to any injustice to her and demand she accept his promiscuity and bring up his children out of wedlock but strong retributive punishment for her if she stray sexually openly. The poignant scene where she is forced to give up her child by Grey
has a parallel to a scene in Small Island where a white mother gives up a black child (she had intercourse with a black man) for its own sake though it breaks her heart and life’s hope.
In the movie it’s there as a part of a paradigm one sees in movies in modern dress. Most striking are the many scenes carried off so well by Fiennes (out of typology) where he is adamant and cruel to Georgiana and they have no recourse.
It’s hard to say that the film could not be read as conservative. Certainly if you wanted to read it this way you could: by obeying at the end we are told Gray became a prime minister, the child was brought up loved, and Georgiana lived a full influential society life. This would be like in Thelma and Louise emphasizing the ending — for the journey is one of strong victim hood and suffering and loss, violation of spirit and body, wtith he duchess becoming a heavy drinker, gambler, almost setting herself on fire.
We are never told what the job of motherhood entails – that’s telling. It seems to be only playing with a child or kissing it. That it entails re-inculcating these ugly inhumanities we’ve seen all movie long is only seen in Charlotte Rampling’s remorselessness. It’s part of the movie’s failures — for as in most art the painful sordid and icky realities of networking are nowhere to be seen.
The movie deals in absolutes but as cinema and film art it’s all the more effective.
The figure at the center was coerced by threats and violence into selling her body for these beautiful costumes and hats. Shooting on location was reinforced through color and everyway possible to make a richly luxurious picturesque experience, at the edges of which were dependent poor.
I note Saul Dibb has done two documentaries of serious protest: one about the lives of black people in London and the other about pornography and prostitution. It’s not common to find a man doing this for women’s issues too.