Movie review: The Duchess directed by Saul Dibb

Cover of "The Duchess"
Cover of The Duchess
I dedicate this review to my friend, The Red Witch, who not only had her birthday this month but also was kind enough to make me write an essay about Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire some time ago – my best wishes, dear Witch, and thanks for your online visits and e-mails wich make me often smile!!!


Georgiana Cavendish – Keira Knightley
Duke of Devonshire – Ralph Fiennes
Georgiana’s mother – Charlotte Rampling
Charles Gray – Dominic Cooper
This period drama has been adapted from Amanda Foreman’s best-selling novel, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. It tries to document the romantic entanglements of Georgiana Cavendish, a consort to one of the most powerful men in England at that time and also a beautiful and clever woman who became a real celebrity of British high society at the end of 18th century.
William's first wife, Georgiana, Duchess of De...
 Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787, The Devonshire Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Georgiana’s mother marries her daughter off to the distant and self-absorbed Duke of Devonshire because she seeks higher status and  financial security for her family. Georgiana, just seventeen at that time, agrees without questioning; she is innocent, rather idealistic and has little knowledge of the requirements of a married life. Firstly and foremostly she thinks she will be able to make the Duke love her, like in these sweet romance novels – after all she has every chance to succeed, being young, pretty, intelligent and highly accomplished lady, right?  The brutal truth is that the Duke needs just a respectable ‘womb’ who will bear him a son and heir, not a wife, let alone a partner or a friend. He prefers the uncomplicated company of whores and his dogs. His new wife becomes bored and restless but parties, gossip and gambling seem to be the only entertainment available for ladies like herself. An ambitious woman, Georgiana tries to change that and make a difference.

 When she gets herself involved in the politics, supporting the Whigs, and produces just two measly daughters instead of a much-wanted heir, things in her marriage go even worse. Her husband distances himself  further and entertains casual lovers right under their roof and angry Georgiana’s nose. He invites one of his by-blows, a girl called Charlotte, to live with them permanently. Finally he seduces his wife’s guest and only female friend, Bess. Well, to tell the truth Bess didn’t need much seducing but still. Furious Georgiana decides enough is enough – she tries to make a deal with her husband – she will tolerate his affairs and lovers but she wants to find herself a lover too. Here she hits a snag, though. While the Duke’s conduct is condoned and glossed over, her infidelity, if not tacitly approved by him, might put her in a very vulnerable position. The Duke of course doesn’t approve, why should he? He threatens he will ruin her and those close to her as well. He doesn’t want to be known as another cuckolded husband and he has nothing to lose. What will Georgiana choose – her uncaring husband and children or her ambitious lover, Charles Gray?
My impressions:
This movie was good but it could have been brilliant; that fact seems to be my main complaint, something I cannot get over, silly me, maybe because I like history too much. You see, the real life of Georgiana Cavendish is such a great movie material. Still I  have an impression Saul Dibb didn’t manage to shoulder the weight of it and explore its full possibilities. In fact the more you know about Lady Georgiana’s life story the more you find this movie insipid and shallow. Sure, it is just an adaptation. Still I  refuse to be reconciled with that fact. NO WAY. Prepare yourself – the rest is a long rant and a history lesson. I know, I am weird – if you don’t feel like reading my ramblings, proceed immediately to the final verdict below.
First the good points – I agree, the cast was great. Keira Knightley is gorgeous (providing she doesn’t flash one of her stupid monkey smiles) and here, as Georgiana, she fits the bill perfectly well. Ralph Fiennes has always been good as a baddie and as the Duke he doesn’t disappoint either – his character is such a horrible, cruel idiot that, after one particularly nasty scene (spoiler, highlight to read: he raped his wife just because he got angry with her and he needed that damn heir pretty badly) I, a very calm person, wanted to knock him down and beat black and blue. Charlotte Rampling as an overly ambitious aristocratic mother managed to dominate in a positive way every scene she appeared in. Also the outfits, hats and hairdos of Georgiana were a joy to the eye.
However, the life of the main heroine was botched up and bowdlerized to a significant extend (yes, the ramblings begin for real, run for cover).
Firstly the director glossed over the fact that Georgiana, like her dear hubby, was a gambler and all her life ran up debts that always exceeded the generous four-thousand pounds annual pin money given her by the duke. Dibb made her a drunk instead. Well, I might be wrong but I suppose her gambling was a far bigger problem – it is a historical fact that she tried and failed to reform from that vice many times. Once Georgiana tallied debts of three-thousand pounds ($297,000 in today’s money) and she had to beg her parents for a loan. Money issues remained the source of tension in their marriage till the very end.
It also was forgotten in the movie that, a century before her time, Georgiana led a really modern, door-to-door campaign in the Westminster election of 1784 and was credited with bringing Fox and Lord Hood’s victory. As you can imagine her “canvassing” was highly unorthodox and it resulted in a flagrant rumors and political cartoons that implied she exchanged sexual favors–as well as money–for votes. Too juicy for a movie? I doubt it.
Also Georgiana’s private life, as shown in the movie, differed greatly from the life of the real Duchess. As you remember her first duty was to give birth to an heir and she tried her best. Unfortunately a number of miscarriages strained her marriage from the very beginning – the duke was growing more and more impatient and dissatisfied with his wife. After all these were her staggering gambling debts that sucked up all his money, and he was unable to mortgage his estates until he had a son (that reason behind his fathering-the-heir frenzy was not mentioned by the director at all) . As the Duchess failed to get pregnant for a long time, she, her husband and their common friend, Bess, tried to find a solution to this problem. Georgiana and Bess (but notably without the Duke) decided to travel to Paris in 1789. As soon as they arrived, voila- Georgiana found herself expecting.
Such a miracle pregnancy aroused plenty of gossip that the child was in fact another love child of Bess (who had some sons of previous marriage) and the Duke. It was certainly not an entirely unfounded accusation – after all such an important pregnancy is an odd time to pleasure tripping in France, especially without the modern comforts and a doctor in tow. Georgiana, having had so many miscarriages before (of course not mentioned in the movie), would certainly avoid any additional risk. What’s more, France was in political unrest and hardly the place for a pregnant woman to be traveling safely. Fortunately for all interested parties there were no DNA tests available at that time.
Still nothing of those controversies was shown in the movie and, according to its director, Georgiana never set her foot in Paris! Too tight budget? Then why bother at all?

Portrait of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devo...
Portrait of Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The love affair with Charles Gray was portrayed differently as well. In the movie it lasted just one season (yes, like some Austen heroines Georgiana went to Bath to meet with him in ‘secret’) and was ended by Georgiana’s pregnancy and ensued complications: the Duke made his wife break the relationship, go to the country and give the infant away to the family of her husband right after the birth.  Well, it wasn’t exactly like that.

 When Georgiana became pregnant by Charles Grey she was forced to leave her children and travel to France again to deliver the baby girl, Eliza. The girl  was born less than two years after Georgiana’s son and raised by Gray’s parents as her own father’s sister.  Apparently her pregnancy was rather difficult – convinced she would die in childbirth, Georgiana even wrote a moving letter to her baby son, saying goodbye just in case.
During her long absence, Georgiana missed her children dreadfully, and despite that she was very much in love with Grey, who was seven years her junior (also something not exactly prominent in the movie, Grey was in fact a kind of toy boy), she agreed to renounce him in order to return to her children. Still, it was more than two years before the duke relented and actually allowed her to return, not like in the film, a matter of days.
The Georgiana who returned after her exile was a changed woman. She finally settled down and spent many hours at home nursing her gout-ridden husban; the relationship between them obviously softened because she suffered another miscarriage at this time.  Still the director omitted that change as well. Watching the movie you might wonder why that proud, intelligent, ambitious woman forgave her husband at all because he did nothing more than blackmailing her into obedience and then looking sheepish (I did it? I did it? Really? But she doesn’t really mind, does she?).
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady El...
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, with Lady Elizabeth Foster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Final verdict:

If you know nothing about Georgiana’s life it might be an interesting costume drama – not exactly nice or entertaining but interesting nevertheless. You know, all these costumes… If you like the real history, though, it’s better to read a book it was based on, otherwise you might end up like me, rather frustrated than entertained.

ETA: here you can find the link to my old essay about
GeorgianaA Portrait of a Lady with a Goldfish

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1 Response to Movie review: The Duchess directed by Saul Dibb

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am so happy I found this article! I bumped into the movie Georgiana by chance, on TV, and decided to watch it because 1. I like Keira and 2. Historic movies are a true joy for me and, finally I expected a happy Jane Austen ending. To make matters worse I started watching it half way into the damn this!! So I was completely lost as to why there was two women at the dinner table with the Duke. I found myself foolishly cheering on her illegitimate affair with Charles. Anyways, the movie made me cry towards the end and when she has to give up Eliza. It was a terrible time to be a women. I thank you for your quick report on the movie and the historic clarification. You gave me so much insight! It was a true joy to read.

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