The real-life Georgiana Cavendish was a fascinating woman: a prominent face in an era of British politics when women's suffrage was nearly a century and a half off on the horizon, a woman with a thirst for alcohol that some believe eventually killed her, a compulsive gambler who sunk deep into debt, and a trendsetter in fashion
Where The Duchess does distinguish itself from that film is a considerably stronger cast. A veteran of these sorts of costume dramas, Keira Knightley is wonderful in the title role, deftly alternating between carefree bliss as Georgiana plays with her daughters to dead-eyed and emotionally ravaged at the hands of her husband. The film's prim and proper backdrop limits the emotional explosions; Knightley has to convey this wide spectrum almost entirely through facial expressions, and she plays it beautifully. Even though Georgiana is more thinly sketched on the page than I would've preferred, Knightley infuses her with so much personality and charisma that she's instantly engaging. She makes The Duchess what it is, and without her name on the marquee, it wouldn't have even been worth an indifferent shrug. Ralph Fiennes takes what could've been a stock villain part -- the cold, detached Duke -- and reveals fleeting glimpses of a better man. Fiennes approaches Cavendish as someone who's been steeled into being this frigid and disinterested. The Duke doesn't revel in any sort of cruelty, but for better or worse, this is the part he's been reared to play. Charlotte Rampling sporadically rears her head as Georgiana's mother, and although it's a small part, she leaves an enormous impression in her few moments on-screen. Other key characters lack that same presence. More MacGuffin than man, Charles Grey doesn't amount to much more than an ideal for Georgiana to crave and to
There's more to appreciate about The Duchess than its cast, though. For one, I appreciate the fact that Georgiana isn't especially rattled by her husband's many affairs. Why would she, after all, considering that there's so little affection between them? The true betrayal is when he beds her closest friend, a woman who's unapologetic about the choice she had to make -- a difficult decision Georgiana is soon faced with herself. Even that Hobson's choice isn't driven by some sort of marital jealousy or even overpossessiveness on the Duke's part. Then, of course, there are Georgiana's startlingly beautiful gowns. The production design as a whole is skilled, effectively reproducing a world left behind a quarter of a millennium ago, but it's careful never to distract the audience's eyes from the immaculately designed costumes.
With so many credited writers, I can't help but wonder if the movie began life with a sharper screenplay that was dulled as more and more cooks blunted its flavor in the kitchen. The Duchess is a fairly routine costume drama that's buoyed by a set of compelling performances and a keen visual eye. While I don't feel as if the film does quite enough to distinguish itself from the glut of similar dramas in recent years, The Duchess does boast enough strengths for it to be worth seeking out for those drawn towards the genre, particularly Blu-ray enthusiasts biding their time until Keira Knightley's Pride and Prejudice and Atonement find their way to the format. Recommended, if only hesitantly.
The stylized visuals throughout The Duchess translate beautifully to Blu-ray, and the clarity and detail of this 1080p presentation showcase its intricate costuming and sumptuous production design. Georgiana's only truly carefree moments in the film come in its first few moments as she's surrounded by lush, pastoral greens. The palette is muted otherwise, with a frigid blue drenching Georgiana when she's at her most tortured. I'm assuming it's part of that same aesthetic that The Duchess' black levels aren't particularly dense, leaving the contrast looking a bit flat. A thin sheen of grain has been retained, although it's so unintrusive that the scope image boasts a silky smooth texture for nearly the entire film. While its stylized visuals keep the nod to reference quality out of reach, The Duchess is visually striking and benefits wonderfully from the additional resolution that Blu-ray has to offer.
The Duchess' theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 is preserved on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc, and the video has been encoded with AVC.
Although The Duchess isn't any worse for it, its 24-bit Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio isn't all that lively or immersive, falling short of such recent costume dramas as Pride and Prejudice and The Other Boleyn Girl. The surrounds rarely draw attention to themselves, reserved primarily for light atmosphere and to further flesh out the score by Rachel Portman. A slammed door and the clatter of fists against a sprawling dinner table are reinforced well enough by the LFE, but the low-end tends to be rather modest as well. The film's dialogue struck me as a touch low in the mix in a few scattered scenes, but it's still consistently clean and clear throughout. The Duchess' lossless soundtrack is an understated but perfectly serviceable effort.
Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are also offered in French and Spanish. The list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Although the handful of extras on this Blu-ray disc are presented in high definition, the packaging is a bit misleading. While the intertitles, production stills, and scans of vintage artwork and documents are at an HD resolution, it's disappointing to see that virtually all of the interviews and behind the scenes footage were originally shot in standard definition and merely upscaled here.
The Final Word
It's somewhat of a disappointment that The Duchess doesn't delve deeper into more of what made Georgiana Cavendish so fascinating. Her politics, scores of vices, and status as a cultural icon are only briefly touched on, and the film prefers instead to focus on the more familiar topics of repressed lust, motherhood, betrayal, and subjugation of women. Taken purely for its story, The Duchess does little to distinguish itself from any number of other costume dramas, but the film is elevated by the restrained intensity of Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes as well as its dazzling costume design. The movie itself is more routine than I'd like, and the same can be said for its release on Blu-ray; the presentation and its handful of extras are fine but unremarkable. The Duchess often hints at something more compelling and substantive than the film manages to deliver, but the strength of the performances and spectacular costuming make for a hesitant recommendation. Recommended.