Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Duchess


What did I tell you? Mount a period production like this, with good actors and a decent script, and you are guaranteed a nomination in one of these categories: Art Direction, or Costume Design. This one got both. Academy members have very little imagination. How hard is it to open history book and see what the useless upper class was wearing and what sort of obscene piles of rock they were inhabiting in 1774? Other nominees: Changeling (1930s) Revolutionary Road (1950s), Milk (1970s). Not much imagination needed for any of those, either. Nominations for Speed Racer, which had more inventiveness in any 24 frames than those three had in 2 hours: zero. Nominations for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium: zero. (Well, that was probably because both those films sucked. But they were great to look at!) At least they had the wit to nominate The Dark Knight. The design and Heath Ledger were the only things I liked about that movie, but those two things were very good.

This film is pretty good, for this sort of thing. Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was a real person. Her marriage was the inspiration of Sheridan’s School for Scandal. Her brother was an ancestor of Lady Di. The movie gets off to a good start by surprising me a little. The young Georgiana is cavorting with young men and women her age, including one she’s obviously interested in, while inside the ancestral rockpile her mother is concluding a deal with the Duke for her to marry. When she’s informed of this you expect her to shout and pout: “But I don’t love him, mumsy!” She doesn’t object! She seems quite thrilled at the idea. And well she might. Though her family is dirty rotten filthy stinking rich, the Duke is rich rich! The first of his homes we see is about the size of Versailles, and he has a dozen more pretty much like it.

(Aside: Just how rich do you have to be to employ two footmen to stand beside each door in a gigantic house to ensure that no person of quality should ever suffer the indignity and exertion of opening a door for himself? And this wasn’t just when the house was full of useless party-goers, it appears to have been 24/7. One wonders if the Duke ever had to master the mechanical intricacies of that mysterious invention, the doorknob? “I say, old chap, does one push it, or pull it? Twist it? How ripping.” Nobody in England these days is that rich except the queen, though I imagine there are many people in Arab countries, and people like the Sultan of Brunei, who are.)

But all is not well. All he wants from her is a son, which she can’t produce for a while. He is a long-time philanderer, and takes up with her best and only friend, Lady Bess Foster, who sees his influence as a way to get back her own children, who her husband has forbidden her to see. So much of the movie is about the sad lot of women in the 18th Century. And sad it is, too, though I have my usual trouble worrying too much about the woes of the aristocracy while, unseen, at least in this movie, the ordinary people are starving in the streets. I’m funny that way. Georgiana suffers about this, and takes her own lover, the callow youth we saw earlier in the film. Devonshire learns of this, and makes the Duchess choose between her lover and her children. She chooses the children, just as Bess did.

… and they lived happily ever after. What’s that? How could they be happy? Well, reasonably so, anyway. Bess was a live-in mistress, and later became the second Duchess, and apparently she and Georgie Girl reached an accommodation, which may even have extended to all three of them sharing the same bed. (There’s a hint that Bessie might swing both ways.) That’s the story I’d like to have seen, but the movie ends there.