Friday, October 17, 2008
The 'Duchess' of Despondency
Keira Knightley has quickly become the queen of the period piece in recent years (think 'Pride and Prejudice' or 'Atonement') and in the Duchess she revisits the 18th century (the film begins in 1774) and inhabits a true and truly sad tale of the Duchess of Devonshire which vividly depicts the plight of patrician women in a rigid patriarchal and class society like 18th century Britain. Ralph Fiennes plays the laconic and morose Duke (think his role as Voldemort) to this Duchess and gives new meaning to 'British reserve' in this film, as he cannot even manage to express love to his own wife, or even decent compassionate understanding of her. Hence, she is trapped in a loveless arranged marriage.
Though it is not an excuse, it is understandable why there were so many dalliances, mistresses, and affairs in such a world. People didn't marry for love or companionship. The nobility looked at marriage rather like they viewed horses-- it was a matter of picking a well bred creature and breeding with them to produce the appropriate male heir who would be "to the manor born".
This film is beautifully shot, as one has come to expect of BBC films, and clocks in at 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is a good thing, since its focus is on manners and melodrama, not real drama or action. One could use a spot of tea and some biscuits while watching this sad tale unfurl itself across the screen. Rated PG 13, mostly for brutish behavior (no sex actually depicted please, we're British), this movie ably sticks to its subject matter-- which is indeed the plight of these upper class women in a male dominated world of wealth and power. The Duke only wants loyalty and a male heir from his wife, and "she must do her duty". There is a lot of talk about how "duty calls" in this film.
The beauty of the scenery, the costumes, the houses and the rural settings in England, "that green and pleasant land" only punctuate the misery of the human beings who inhabit those clothes and settings, those lifestyles of the rich and lovelorn. What is even more ironic is that the very people who are front and center in this film and see themselves as progressive Whigs (it really should have been the Wig party, they wore so many of them) who are opposed to slavery (hence the cameos of George Fox and his speech making, but unfortunately for historical accuracy, the founder of the Quaker movement lived at the end of the previous century--1624-91) and wanting to enfranchise more people to vote (not women of course), are the very persons who behave so beastly towards their own mates and family. They prove the old adage if it weren't for marriage, men and women wouldn't have anyone to fight with day in and day out.
As for the plot, Georgianna marries William, a man considerably older than her, a marriage of convenience, arranged by her mother and the Duke. The Duke is driven by a need for a male heir, and as the movie begins Georgianna's mother is busily assuring the Duke that her family's women had always been able to produce such progeny, in abundance. Alas however, after the marriage, Georgianna has two girls, and two boys end in miscarriage.
Caught in a loveless situation, she wishes she had not marry in this way, and could have pursued her affections for one Charles Grey, destined thereafter to be the prime minister of all England. Georgianna is forced to accept a further daughter, sired by William out of wedlock, a beautiful little girl named Charlotte, and to raise her as her own. This she does, but what she cannot abide is William eventually bringing in a mistress into the house, and not just any woman, but in fact one of her own best friends. She feels robbed of her friend and friendship by her own husband. Horrible.
There are in fact various beastly things that happen to Georgianna who remains married to this man throughout her life: 1) she is raped by him in part because she has admitted to a dalliance with Charles Grey (though it had not gotten around to sex quite yet); 2) later she is forced to give up her love child with Charles Grey to the Grey family, and frankly this may be the most horrific scene in the movie where in an English marsh she meets and is forced to hand over her little daughter Eliza to General Grey, the father of Charles.
There are more such episodes in this story which will make your blood boil and your milk curdle, but suffice it to say that though the movie is well done, and you end up with plenty of sympathy for the plight of Georgianna, you don't much like any of these people at the end of the day. They make their beds, they lie in them, then they go and lie in someone else's then they just lie and lie and lie, all the while "preserving the appearances of decency and good form". This behavior gives the word hypocrisy a bad name.
Still, Georgianna is in some ways a sympathetic figure, and one who admirably loves and raises her children despite all the obstacles in the way. Love of one's children prevails over the love of her life, as Georgianna cannot leave William to be with Charles because it would mean never seeing her children again--- and never is a very long time indeed.
Human falleness, despite human pretenses, taints us all, and so perhaps we should not look any more askance at the 18th century British nobility than we look at ourselves, who consistently sin and are only inconsistently good and godly. The story reminds us, if we should need any reminding, that goodness doesn't come from good breeding, or a good education, or good finances, or good opportunities, it comes from God, and hardly anyone in this films shows even a modicum of a nodding acquaintance with the Almighty. And therein lies the rub.