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Duchess, The

Paramount // PG-13 // December 27, 2008
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted January 3, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Based on
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the biography penned by Amanda Foreman, The Duchess opens near the close of the 18th century as young Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) learns she's to wed William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes), the fifth Duke of Devonshire. The sixteen year old's eyes sparkle at the prospect of marriage, naive enough to expect a whirlwind life of privilege and romance. As a duchess, Georgiana quickly settles in comfortably, debating the definition of freedom with politicos over dinner, finding herself established as a fashion icon through extravagant wigs and immaculate gowns of her own design, and standing strong as one of the most vocal supporters of the Whig party. England at large is fascinated with the Duchess, but her husband couldn't care less. He has no patience for romance and no interest in conversation: the Duke is obligated to produce an heir, and Georgiana is purely a means to that end. Even their sexual encounters are coarse and mechanical. When Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell) speaks of the tenderness and affection shown by her lovers, Georgiana dismisses it as a romantic fantasy; she doesn't even have a frame of reference to believe men can behave that way. With the Duke bedding seemingly anyone who'll lay with him and the marriage strained by a slew of daughters and miscarriages, Georgiana takes at least some solace in her close friendship with Lady Foster and a flirtation with future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Whatever power and influence she wields in British society vanishes in the Cavendishes' palatial estate, and those bonds too are soon threatened, as is Georgiana's relationship with her young children.

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
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-- so much so that this film is a lock for an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design. The Duchess breezes past much of this, though, rarely bothering with anything that doesn't directly service its Gilded Cage story of repression and betrayal. A biography need not delve into every last facet of its subject's life, but a more thorough study may have kindled a spark in what's otherwise a fairly routine tale for a costume drama, one that seems especially redundant with The Other Boleyn Girl treading such similar ground just a few months earlier.

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
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chase after. Dominic Cooper's performance just doesn't possess the charisma that ought to radiate from a future Prime Minister. The role of best friend is played ably by Hayley Atwell, although it seems somewhat truncated, especially a sapphic tease between Georgiana and Bess that seems like it could be significant but is quickly forgotten.

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.

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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.
  • How Far She Went:
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    Making The Duchess
    (23 min.; partially HD): The centerpiece of this Blu-ray disc's extras is its six-part making-of featurette. Among the topics covered here are how so many of the concerns of 18th century aristocracy -- a sort of celebrity-obsessed culture, bulemia, gambling, and drug addiction -- are still relevant all these centuries later, the emphasis on shooting in real locations and relying on natural light whenever possible, the additional complexity Ralph Fiennes infused into Duke Cavendish, and the somewhat revisionist approach to hair and makeup, including a wig so enormous that Keira Knightley could barely keep her chin up. While this featurette does lean more heavily on clips from the film than I'd like, it's reasonably comprehensive, and it's not weighed down by any backpatting or self-congratulatory filler. Its emphasis really is squarely placed on the making of the film, and that's greatly appreciated.

  • Georgiana in Her Own Words (7 min.; partially HD): Biographer Amanda Foreman reads portions of several of Georgiana's original letters, noting how the general tone, content, and even her penmanship drastically changed throughout her marriage. " Her Own Words" also offers high resolution scans of these letters, including one that Georgiana penned in her own blood and several torn and blotted out by Lady Elizabeth Foster to protect her dear friend.

  • Costume Diary (6 min.; partially HD): This featurette explores how the color and ornateness of the intricate costuming reflects the progression of The Duchess' characters, and it also touches on how closely Georgiana's gowns and accoutrements are keyed to the scenes in which they appear.

  • Trailers (HD): Rounding out the extras on this Blu-ray disc are a pair of high definition theatrical trailers.

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.

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