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Knightley is Crowning Achievement of “The Duchess”

Caitlyn Ferarro | Friday, October 31, 2008

“The Duchess” depicts the desperate life of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire (Kiera Knightley) living in 18th century England.

In the eyes of her public, the Duchess was one of the most fashionable and charming women around. Even high society followed in her wake, emulating her fashions and wigs. It is painfully obvious early on that the gossip line is evident, and that the Duke is “the only man in England not in love with his wife.”

While Georgiana leads an extravagant political and public life, her personal life is characterized by unhappiness due to her marriage. Ralph Fiennes perfectly portrays the evil Duke with great subtlety that it creeps up on the viewer. The Duke does not bother to get to know his wife, but like many other stories of the time only wants her to provide him with a male heir.While this film does contain some soapy underpinnings, it avoids most of the soap opera pitfalls. The riveting performances of the actors save the film from this fate by demonstrating elegance, wit, and power.

It is a beautiful period piece that delves into the dirt and vice of the seemingly clean cut royal class. Part of the realism translates from the book, which was based on a true story that inspired the film, by Amanda Foreman.

While the Duchess struggles to produce a son, she must suffer through the uncomfortable love triangle that includes her husband and his live-in mistress, Lady Katherine (Charlotte Rampling), Georgiana’s once best friend and confidant.

The awkward meals that the three share are extremely tense. When the Duchess can no longer remain calm at one of these meals, it leads to a harrowing sexual confrontation between the Duke and his wife. The film succeeds here by avoiding the clichéd drama about the woman being infertile, as Georgiana births daughter after daughter. The problem here is simply bad luck.

Full of emotions ranging from anger to love to desperation, both Lady Katherine and Georgiana seem willing to do anything for their children. The two women are extremely strong characters in the face of a society that does not value their voice, especially in politics and ownership. Unfortunately, the men seem to only care for their children if they are males.

To the outside word, Georgiana is a vibrant celebrity known for her fashions and quick wit. But when need be, Knightley carefully portrays the depression underneath her character. And when the Duchess falls passionately in love with a young politician, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), Knightley comes alive.

“The Duchess” is visually sumptuous and more honest than most costume dramas. Knightley is truly exceptional as the titular character. There is even Oscar buzz surrounding the actress with this performance. After roles in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Antonement” it seems she has perfected the British time period woman who experiences fanciful fits, eloquent discourse, and sometimes a little steamy sex. It would be the second, and a well-deserved, nomination for Knightley.While Knightley certainly deserves ample praise, Fiennes does just as well. Since the film is entitled “The Duchess” it is expected that her character will sometimes overshadow his.

However, he holds his own as he perfectly plays the controlling villain, although his performance is certainly less obvious than his Lord Voldermort persona. In a twisted way, he makes the Duke’s terrible actions seem necessary, and towards the film’s end he briefly reveals a hint of humanity.

His portrayal of the painfully aristocratic man is impeccable, as he leads the audience to consider sympathizing with him and condemn society instead.

Cooper and Rampling round out a great cast as the supporting characters that suffer themselves due to the dysfunctional Devonshire marriage. In the end, “The Duchess” contains expansive scenery, wonderful costumes, makeup and hair, impressive dialogue, and outstanding performances.