I feel I’ve done some things in life too late and others too early.
— Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley)
The first few moments of The Duchess offer up the usual nostalgic frolicking of imperial England, circa 1774. A bevy of young lovelies, their slim forms corseted and their long curls tied up in complicated designs. As the girls select young men to represent them in a footrace around a wide green lawn, the camera pans their pale, perfect faces. The game’s most perfect player and organizer, 17-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), picks the very pretty Earl of Grey (Dominic Cooper) as her racer, then smiles broadly as he breathlessly speeds along the course, eager to earn her admiration.
This sweet, childish scampering is soon squashed by the goings-on inside Georgina’s home. Here her imperturbable mother (Charlotte Rampling) is brokering her daughter’s future with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). As it is clear that his duty “is to produce an heir,” she assures him, “The women in this family have never forfeited on that account.” He nods. And with that, the deal is done.
Informed of her future, G, as she’s called by friends, is delighted. “Does he love me?” she gasps, shocked because she’s only met him twice. Alas, the girl’s faith that marriage is based on love will be short-lived. Just minutes later, she’s inside the Duke’s bedroom, breathing uneasily as he unlaces her garment and positions her on the bed. “For the life of me,” he mutters while leaning into his task, “I could never understand why women’s clothes have to be so damn complicated.” G answers quietly: “It’s our way of expressing ourselves,” she says, “You have so many ways of expressing yourselves, we must make do with our hats and our dresses.”
And so it appears that sweet G is not nearly so naïve as she has appeared thus far, that she does indeed understand the discrepancies of power and possibility that govern the lives of men and women. (In fact, she designs some of these costumes herself.) As Saul Dibb’s gorgeously appointed melodrama goes on to show — again and again — G works the system as best she can, forging a self-image out of the embroidered surfaces granted her. When she learns, almost immediately, that the Duke is pathologically unfaithful, G sets her jaw and pushes onward, amusing herself with dinner guests when her grumpy husband abandons the evening he’s arranged (“The damn speeches bore me,” he hisses, “I think we have to ban them in the future”). As G discovers her own quick wit and flair for debate (particularly concerning definitions of freedom: “It’s an absolute,” she argues, a matter of either-or”), she is soon popular within her social circuit, renowned for her spirited drinking and card-playing. Soon she’s fronting political rallies for her old friend Charles Grey, drawing crowds and inspiring enthusiasm like she’s Sarah Palin.
Or, like she’s a princess. Following the lead of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, the movie indicts the social system that oppressed the painfully wealthy G, with an eye on the repercussions for her descendent, Lady Diana Spencer. The film underscores the many indignities and abuses suffered by the wonderful G — and she is resolutely wonderful, blameless and courageous despite all — including her husband’s announcement during the early days of their marriage that she will raise a daughter he has with another woman, now dead. “It’s only a little girl,” he sniffs. “You can practice your mothering skills.”
As it turns out, G bears the Duke two more daughters, much to his distaste (and she is also keenly aware that her original contact calls for a son). Still, G not only takes great pleasure in her girls, but also lays claim on a young woman, Bess (Hayley Atwell), whom she spots one evening as the Duke is trying to pick her up. What begins as a kind of contest — G wants to make sure Bess comprehends the cruelty inflicted on the wife by an “other woman” — evolves into a friendship, one that makes the Duke grumpy and jealous, and which he soon breaks up by sleeping with Bess. Here the housing arrangement becomes exceedingly complicated, with all three living under one roof, along with G’s girls and Bess’ boys from a previous relationship. Where the start of Bess and G’s friendship is cast in close-ups of murmuring lips and held hands, the break is rendered in sharp angles: G watches her rival through doorframes and from distances, her face firm and fallen at once.
This mix of reactions is mostly represented in Knightley’s surprisingly subtle performance, where slight gestures and briefly shifting expressions speak more eloquently than grander scenes of upset and outrage. If the script portrays her as an admirable, even noble, victim of a terrible (or at least terribly self-pitying) man, Knightley does something else, intimating that G made deals with herself, followed her mother’s depressing example, and, still, pursued what she wanted until she couldn’t. In response to the Duke’s decision to bring Bess into their home, she asserts her own right to take a lover, namely, that cute Charles Grey. Seated at breakfast with his two women perched tensely on their chairs, the Duke refuses to make any kind of deal. “Why should I?” he taunts, “I’m in charge of it all.”
The abuse he proceeds to inflict on his wife makes clear his sense of being “in charge.” It also represents, in a few, dark, brutal moments, the “ways of expression” available to men and closed off to women, exactly the system that Georgiana recognizes and resists. The movie, which surely celebrates the luxurious “hats and dresses,” also solicits your sympathetic frustration and outrage over her oppression. This even as she does her best not to show such feelings herself.