Posted December 24, 2008 in The Small Screen

When costume dramas work best they either teach us something important about the historical era they are portraying, or they use that era to say something vital about our own. The Duchess, seemingly a mere vehicle to make Keira Knightley look as beautiful as possible, tries to do the latter but is really more effective at the former. Early on in the film, the Duke of Devonshire (marvelously played by Ralph Fiennes) says to his teenaged bride Georgiana (Knightley) that he doesn’t understand why women’s clothing has to be so complicated. To this his Duchess replies, “I guess it’s just our way of expressing ourselves.”  This exchange brings into focus the key dilemma of the film . . .  beyond her ability to bear a son and heir, the Duchess’ power exists only in how well she looks and how much attention she can manage to attract for herself. In their PR campaign, the filmmakers tried hard to make a direct connection to this real-life Duchess and her honest-to-God descendent, Princess Diana, who faced her own helplessness in a similar way. The film itself lets you draw that conclusion if you want to, but doesn’t overplay it, instead giving you a character who stands on her own in a more sad than truly scandalous tale. Extensive bonus features let you see the fact behind the fiction of Georgiana (much of the basis of the film was drawn from her own letters and real portraits from the period) and highlight the subtle role that costumes play in telling the story. (Red Vaughn) 


Paramount Vantage, 109 minutes

Available: December 27





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