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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: The Duchess

This weekend the Husband and I ate way too much pumpkin cheesecake, watched way too many episodes of The Office Season 6 (Confession: I teared up a bit when Jim and Pam got married), and dreamed way too much about owning lakefront property. We took a short trip to Kentucky’s Taylorsville Lake where we hiked, taking turns carrying The Bear on our shoulders while our feet crunched leaves underfoot. It was the perfect fall activity on a perfect fall day.
Nevertheless, as much as I enjoyed time outside with my two favorite people, occasionally I would feel a knot tighten in my chest. Ugh, why do I have such a sick feeling? I would wonder. Is this the Sunday Blues?
No, I soon realized, not the Sunday Blues, but a consequence of remembering the movie I’d watched the evening before: The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

The Duchess
In my scorebook, the first measure of a movie’s quality is whether or not I think about it a lot the next day. And while I consider The Duchess a good movie, I’m not sure whether I was thinking about it during our hike or whether my body was simply recalling the physiological reaction I had to the film. 
In short, this movie is painful to watch. Despite skilled actors and exquisite costumes, viewing it was pure agony -- largely because of the 18th Century, aristocratic, English society that forced Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, to remain in a loveless marriage. Her husband, the Duke of Devonshire, blames her for being unable to produce a son. (Creep! As if this were something she could control!) and screws just about anything that walks. In one scene he takes Georgiana to bed just after she has watched a naked woman flee his room. (For heaven’s sake, man, change the sheets and take a shower before bringing your wife to your already sex-soiled bed!) One of the most “painful to watch” scenes of the film is when the Duke rapes Georgiana. As she screams, servants move about in earshot, helpless to aid their mistress.

Yes, the double standards of this time are physically sickening to this modern woman. Georgiana was forced to accept her husband’s lover into their household but forbidden to continue a relationship with her true love, Charles Grey (or else, the Duke threatened, she would never see her children again). Early in the film, Georgina is presented with the Duke’s illegitimate daughter and chooses to raise the child as her own. In contrast, years later he forces her to give up a child she conceived with Grey.
Georgiana: Duchess of DevonshireThis film is based on the nonfiction book, Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Oxford scholar Amanda Foreman, and because the film has left me hungry for more details about Georgiana’s life, I am certainly adding the book to my wish list. 
I wanted to watch this film largely because of my interest in aristocratic society during 18th and 19th Century England. Granted, this interest is not based on fact but fiction. I have been known at times to enjoy reading historical romance novels, specifically those written by Judith McNaught.  These guilty pleasures are most often set in the decades after Georgiana’s death, but involve characters who, like Georgiana, are members of England’s high society. Heroines often live a glamorous (albeit frivolous) life filled with fashion and parties, but very often find themselves hugely limited by the dictates of society -- much like Georgiana. 
But Georgina’s reality diverges quite sharply from these fantasy novels. For Georgiana there is no happy ending (at least not in the film), because she is unable to change her circumstances. Georgiana was imprisoned by her cruel, seemingly heartless husband, unlike the romance novel heroine, who might be imprisoned by social dictates, but is essentially set free by a kind, generous, powerful husband who (by the novel’s conclusion) is so in love with her that he will do anything to please her. 
I remember watching trailers of The Duchess when I still worked in collection development. (Librarians stay abreast of any upcoming book to film releases and, budget permitting, ensure there are plenty of copies when library patrons start asking for the book...Yet another reason why librarians are awesome!) Last week, when I added The Duchess to our Netflix instant queue, I recalled that the story did not end happily, but I presumed it was a love story, focusing on the relationship between Georgiana and Charles Grey. 
Just to be clear, this movie is not a love story; it is more of a hate story, focusing on the relationship between Georginia and her husband. So if you want a love story, consider checking out McNaught’s novels. (See my post script below).
Recommended for those who enjoy period pieces, who can tolerate British accents and unhappy endings, and who don’t mind experiencing the sudden urge to strangle Ralph Fiennes. 
If you have seen this film, I would love to hear your thoughts!
P.S. For those interested in Judith McNaught’s novels... My absolute favorites are:
Whitney, My Love
Something Wonderful
Until You
Once and Always

A Kingdom of Dreams

I think I’ve read most of these books three, if not four times. Be forewarned: McNaught's stories just might take over your whole existence. I haven’t read any of her books in years, because for me they are so transporting, so engaging, that whenever I’m in the midst of one, I seldom accomplish anything else! The Husband doesn’t really like this, and I can only imagine that The Bear and The Doodles would feel the same... If you are a JM fan, I would love to hear from you! For more information check out a fan’s website:


  1. I've never read Judith McNaught, but I'll be adding at least one of these to my "must read" list...I love a good book & I love even more when I find a new author & a story outside of what I normally read. It'll be this summer before I get to curl up with much of anything other than a nursing book (I've got 1 book slated for the week we have off at Thanksgiving...maybe I could squeeze another in on Christmas break...hmmm....)

    I had been contemplating whether or not I wanted to see that movie too. Maybe I'll go ahead & stick it in the Netflix queue. Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. I watched that movie when my parents got it from Netflix and yes, it has definitely stayed with me. I really liked it for just that reason. After watching it, I just felt so angry that things had been that way. And so grateful to all the women before me who fought so that we could have the choices we have today. I haven't read anything by Judith McNaught, but you've got me intrigued, so I'll have to check her out!

  3. Right after I had Spencer I became ADDICTED to Judith McNaught and probably nursed every two hours just so I could continue reading! Whitney, My Love was by far my favorite and I can't stand the thought of giving it away so it will always reside in the guilty pleasures section of my bookshelf. There is a new JM novel out---I am waiting for paperback--if I get it first you can have it when I am done!

  4. Thanks for commenting ladies!

    Terra, I hope you have a long winter break with tons of reading time! JM should not disappoint if you like the romance genre at all. Whitney My Love and Something Wonderful are my two favorite JM historicals. She goes into a lot of detail, so they might seem to start a little slow. Also, the main characters in Whitney make a few appearances in Something Wonderful, so you might want to start with Whitney...If you are in the mood for something a little more modern, Paradise is my favorite of her contemporary novels. It is set in the 1980s, so it seems a little historical now! The Hero is from Indiana, so the novel takes some trips to the Hoosier state!

    Abby, it is so good to see you stopped by. I haven't forgot about visiting one of your story times! My sis-in-law has a newborn and I hope for me and her and our toddlers and the baby to make a trip!

    Katie, I'm so happy to hear you are a JM fan! I think her upcoming book keeps getting postponed again and again, and I'm not sure what the hold up is! Darn, I wish I could have read more while nursing...I could never get comfortable with the baby and the book. I DVR'd lots of movies in those days....miss those days!!!

  5. I got distracted talking to Abby about story time and forgot to add that I, too, am grateful for sacrifices women have made that have led us to have the range of choices we have today.

    Another heartbreaking aspect of this film, which I didn't mention in my original post was how the Duke regarded his daughters (precious little baby girls) with such scorn, and how demoralizing this attitude must have been for the mother.