Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Duke of Churl

The Duchess

There are a lot of reasons to like this historical biography starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), an ancestor of Princess Diana. One of them has nothing to do with the movie itself: Knightley, whose modest bustline is highlighted by the movie’s tightly corseted costumes, protested the studio’s plan to digitally enlarge her breasts in the movie posters. Somehow we like her much better for that.

Further, the movie, based on a book by Amanda Foreman and directed by Saul Dibb, is a dishy pleasure, all ravishing dresses, outlandish wigs, ornate sets and unusual sex — especially sex. Although Georgiana was an active campaigner for the Whig party and organizer of political and literary salons, she was better known, like her descendant Diana, for her trendsetting fashion and unusual marriage. The movie gives only cursory attention to Georgiana’s political activities, preferring to focus on the sexier parts of her life.

We first meet Georgiana at 17, when she is selected as a bride by the older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), with the approval of her mother, Lady Spencer (the wonderful Charlotte Rampling).

The story is pure Jane Eyre gothic: Georgiana becomes a prisoner in her own home when she discovers, to her shock, that she has married the Duke of Churl. The Duke is cruelly distant, devoted only to his dogs, and prone to marital rape in his single-minded pursuit of a male heir when Georgiana stubbornly insists on producing only girls. Like Princess Di, she is beloved by the people but despised by her husband. Wearing a series of Bride of Frankenstein wigs (one of which catches on fire in a ballroom during a campy “mad scene”), Georgiana flourishes in style and bears many children without gaining an ounce, but remains deeply unhappy, pouting most petulantly. She seeks solace with a friend, Lady Bess (Hayley Atwell of Brideshead Revisited and Cassandra's Dream), who moves into their castle as part of a bizarre ménage a trios with the Duke. (The Duke and Duchess’ marriage was an inspiration for Sheridan’s School for Scandal.)

Desolate, Georgiana initiates a scandalous affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a future Prime Minister, and all sorts of bad things happen.

It’s all a bit silly and of absolutely no significance, but it's quite pleasurable all the same.

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