Duchess, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.
Length: 110 minutes
Grade: BC-AB=B
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $52 million (14 U.S., 30 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher (Casanova), Anders Thomas Jensen (A lot of stuff in Denmark), and Saul Dibb (Nothing worth noting), based on the book by Amanda Foreman.
Directed by: Saul Dibb (Still nothing worth noting)
Starring: Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes
With: Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, and Hayley Atwell

A young girl is chosen by the Duke of Devonshire for marriage with the purpose of producing a male heir. He turns out to be a surly, cold, deceptive philanderer who treats her about as badly as a “gentleman” could. In turn, she tries to keep her life together and have an impact on politics, all the while nurturing the dream that she might be free to experience love with a lifelong friend.

Entertainment Value: B
This is a horror of a movie where the abuse is everything the opposite of what you see in a modern horror. The performances are excellent and the plot is gripping. I have trouble watching Keira Knightly only because I keep forgetting she’s not Anna Paquin or Winona Ryder, but I know that’s my problem, not hers. The costuming (Academy Award) and artistry are both outstanding. But the genius of this movie is the way it preaches by contrast. More on that in a moment.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity D+, Violence C, Language A
The biggest issues here are plot, which involves open adultery, rape, and a range of family/sexual horrors. Most of it is not shown, rather implied, but there are some scenes which will make parents rightly nervous. This is rightly rated PG-13, and no one under that age should see it. On the other hand, precisely because this is such a fabulous portrayal of evil under a pretty surface in a man, it may well be an excellent educational film for women about to start dating.

Significant Content: A
Now, I know some people will be shocked to find me rating this an A with so much awful content, but that’s because they’re missing the whole point. This movies is overtly preaching BY CONTRAST with what it’s showing us on the screen. It’s showing you a horror story made possible by a world in which arranged marriage, patriarchal power, the preference for male offspring, and the inaccessibility of divorce ruin women’s lives. And by the way, I’m not so sure this story isn’t relatively common these days as well. Precisely by showing the Duke’s evil, this movie is declaring things about how the world should be and about the valiant virtue of people who make the impossible choices within such dilemmas as this society presented for them. Appearances can often be deceiving. Privilege can create its own set of burdens.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie which offered such a powerful argument for divorce as this one. But it does more than just this, by telling a historically accurate story about a woman struggling to do as much good with her life as she can while fighting forces mostly beyond her control. It’s also a virtually Biblical critique of the abuses of power, privilege, and money. One thing that frustrated me about this movie was that it failed to properly portray the gambling and fame issues as well as they intended, major elements of her life, but not integrated effectively in the movie.

Discussion Questions:
~As a villain, what makes the Duke so terrifying? Which is more disturbing, evil like his or evil like the bad guy in a horror film? Which sort of evil is the Bible more interested in? What are some of the things you might look for in a person who is at heart like the Duke?
~What do you think are the proper fault-based grounds for divorce? Which of them would have applied to this marriage?
~What parts of this world do you find difficult to fathom? Are there any parts which seem intriguing to you?
~Is this movie primarily about the evils of arranged marriage or about the particular evils of this arranged marriage?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The political speech at dinner.
~The discussion between Bess and Georgiana in the powder room. Do you think there are limits to what a mother should do for her children? What does the ultimate plot of the movie say about Georgiana’s position on this matter? What do you think of Bess’s choices? Which woman’s choices were harder?
~Confronting the Duke about Bess.
~Giving up the child.
~Returning to the palace after the encounter at Bath.

Overall Grade: B
A gripping portrait of evil and goodness striving to survive when it can’t be destroyed or avoided.

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