Sunday, December 06, 2009

Movie Log: The Duchess

We expect our stories to be carefully formed, these days -- but we also often demand that those stories be "true." That can cause problems, since real life very rarely shapes stories to fit human standards. Let's take, for example, the recent movie The Duchess, about the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire -- the advertisements and trailer promised the usual "triumph of love over circumstances," but the reality of her life was quite different. And the movie, to its credit, follows the reality.

Georgiana (played in the movie by Kiera Knightley) was married to William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, in June of 1774, when she was 17 and he was 28 -- though, as played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie, he appears notably older. (This, of course, is deliberate -- he's the stern, authoritarian, forbidding villain of the piece, and so has the wig and manner of an older man.) William is so unconnected to anything human, so utterly uninterested in Georgiana (and, seemingly, any other person in the world), that I commented about halfway through the movie that he seemed to have a case of Asperger's Syndrome.

Aristocratic marriages early in movies are always disasters; if they weren't, there would be no movie. And so it is for Georgiana and William -- she spends her time making stump speeches and hosting salons for the Whigs (particularly their young and dashing leader, Charles Grey, played by Dominic Cooper in the movie), while William...well, we don't see what William does when he's not with Georgiana, since it's her story. His purpose here is to be an ogre -- he doesn't love her, he doesn't want to spend time with her, and his repeated demands for a son grows more frustrated and angry when her first two children are daughters. Presumably, the real-world William had some interests and pastimes, other than his dogs, but The Duchess avoids any discussion or even mention of them.

And so the marriage, based on position and advantage and the demand for an heir to begin with, is never particularly strong, and gets worse as it goes along. William is cold and formal, as bad aristocrats always are in movies, while Georgiana is warm and open -- presented as a modern woman in a very different society. (I have my own very strong doubts that either of them were much as they are portrayed in the movie; they seem to have been much more complex figures, and much more of their time.)

Georgiana befriends a woman whose husband has driven her away, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), and takes her in. William, showing in interest in humanity that has been alien to him up to this point in the movie, immediately seduces Bess and openly makes her his mistress. (There's a line of dialogue afterward that establishes that William has had mistresses during the marriage before this, but there was no previous sign of this in the movie. One also does not get the impression from the movie that Georgiana has had any affairs up to this point, which may not be entirely believable.)

The back half of the movie then has Ms. Knightley emoting furiously, as she bangs her ladylike little fists against the stone wall of her husband (to no avail), begins an affair with Grey, and finally is forced to give up her and Grey's illegitimate daughter to his parents. Watching the movie, as a modern audience, we expect Georgiana to find a way to escape William and be happy -- either with Grey or without, but somehow.

That is not the ending The Duchess has, because it's not the ending Georgiana had. She died in midlife, still married and tied to William, who then went on to wed Bess. Unfortunately, The Duchess is organized as a standard costume drama, so the ending comes as a surprise and a disappointment; the story the movie has presented up to that point doesn't lead, in the modern popular consciousness, to an ending like this. And The Duchess shows no other sign of wanting to be subversive or of attempting to undercut such expectations; it plays along with all of the genre tropes right up to the point where it realizes that it doesn't have a happy ending up its sleeve and lamely trots out the ending it does have.

The Duchess is thus an object lesson in better organizing one's content, and in telling the story you actually have from the beginning; if the American public's favorite thing is a tragedy with a happy ending, this is the opposite: a costume drama with a return to tradition and propriety at the end. Most of the parts of The Duchess are good, but they don't add up to make either the kind of movie that it wanted to be or a realistic account of Georgiana's life. (And less of a focus on Georgiana, and some more time and attention on William and Bess, could also have helped.)

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