Maggie McMuffin revisits the royal court of The Duchess and is delighted to find a much gayer movie than she remembers, and the movie she wants “all period pieces to be.”
We’re gonna bypass whether or not this movie is historically accurate (Wikipedia tells me it kind of is and kind of isn’t) and settle instead on the fact that I only remembered one scene from this movie: Keira Knightley crying on a bed after her husband slept with her best friend, lamenting that he took the only thing from her that was hers.
This scene has stuck with me for ten years. While I could never remember the exact dialogue, I could remember the feeling it inspired in me. How much pity I had for this character based on a historical icon. It was more than the standard corset filler fare, but I figured it must have been just one moment in an otherwise standard period piece.
Oh boy was I wrong.
For one, this movie is way gayer than I remember.
For two, there’s a rape scene.
For three, within the first ten minutes I was enraptured by the cinematography, the lead character stating that fashion is a woman’s way of expressing herself—“You have so many ways of expressing yourself and we must make do with our hats and our dresses”—the subtle ways every single gendered aspect of this world was set up.
I cried at the end. I spent the rest of the movie shouting in anger or joy.
The movie follows a version of Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, as played by Knightley. We meet her at 17 on the day she is engaged to the much older Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) and follow her through the end of her affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), as well as the nontraditional living arrangement with her best friend/rival/kind of metamour Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell).
The first thing we see her doing is passing a hat for ladies to draw men’s names out of. It seems romantic, but really they’re being told which foot racers they’re betting on. I excitedly asked why we don’t do that at parties anymore and my girlfriend said, “Probably because none of us have money.” Fair point for an unfair world.
Georgiana, or “G” as she is frequently called, wins with her “horse” Mr. Charles Grey, because foreshadowing is great! As this happens, the Duke of Devonshire is in talks with G’s mother to marry her. Lady Spencer lists of G’s accomplishments, her talents, her ability to speak five languages…but all The Duke wants is the assurance of a male heir. He gets it, and then the audience gets a brief wedding ceremony that plays over the opening credits. It’s cold, unsentimental, and sets us up for their wedding night where G attempts witty conversation despite her nerves and instead gets literally cut out of her dress because the Duke finds women’s clothing “damned complicated” before being put through her (thankfully boring) wifely duties.
It should be noted here that despite having met twice at this point, the bright-eyed G is in love with her husband and believes him to be in love with her. She does not feel obligated to sleep with him, instead relishing the idea of being close to him in private moments, at sharing intimacy with a man who prefers the company of his dogs to most people.
“I think it might feel different if he would talk to me every once in a while. It’s not that he’s unkind it’s that he never talks to me.”
Sadly, G can never seem to garner his attention, though the maids and various ladies can. G withstands it, giving him several daughters but no sons, and even raising his illegitimate daughter Charlotte as her own.
Georgiana is pretty much an amazing wife is what I’m saying. She is trying so hard but while maintaining the cool composure that makes her the life of any party. As Lady Foster says at one point, “The Duke of Devonshire must be the only man in England not in love with his wife.”
Lady Foster, of course, becomes G’s best friend after a meeting in Bath. In exile from her own husband. “Bess” has nowhere to go and G feels she has met a kindred spirit. They are inseparable, and G manages to get Bess set up living with her and the Duke when they return to London. They speak constantly of never wanting to part, how much they love their children. They wear similar outfits (not surprising since G is a trendsetter) and trade jokes about other aristocrats. They also totally have sex.
I don’t mean that in a subtextual way either. They climb into bed together, G once again complaining that her husband’s love making is really just perfunctory heir-making, and Bess insists that sometimes men are actually fun to sleep with. Because they’ll do things like kiss your neck, or hold you tight, or lean you back against them—all things Bess demonstrates before slipping her hand beneath G’s nightgown and talking her through the pleasures of intercourse. We stay on G’s face in a near-recreation of how her face was framed on her wedding night, but instead of confusion and slight pain, we see here the face of a gal with a very supportive pal.
Alas, it all comes crashing down soon after. Charles Grey re-emerges, he and G hit it off, and when G rushes to tell Bess about this newfound joy, of a man actually loving her truly, she finds Bess’ room guarded by servants.
What follows is the scene I remember. G waits in her husband’s bedroom for him to come back, wig and vest in hand.
“Of all the women in England, you had to throw yourself on her.”
Which is goddamn true. Georgiana lists all the things she has put up with, all the things she has done. And it’s true that she has never asked for anything, even the one thing she wants most of all which is to be loved by him. Sure, Grey is nice, but Bess is her friend and the Duke is her husband.
“I have ONE single thing of my own. Why couldn’t you have let me keep it? She is my sole comfort in our marriage. You have robbed me of my only friend.”
And then, a line I have heard from myself and so many other remarkable women who made the mistake of falling for mediocre men.
“What is wrong with me?”
It’s the first time we see Georgiana break down and it’s also the moment where I wondered why ten-years-ago-me thought Knightley was an overrated actress. (Okay it was internalized misogyny.) The monologue is a goddamn awards nomination clip, and obviously it works because it’s my strongest memory of this movie.
Her husband gives her a response about how feelings are hard or something and, besides, it’s not like she’s given him an heir and I hate him so much. Oh, and then despite G saying she never wants to see Bess again, he moves her in full time and every meal after that is the three of them sitting at a table either in silence or arguing.
The second half of the movie is typical “rich woman having problems,” but it’s done so well. Bess explains that being with the Duke could get her her children back (it does) and telling G that there are no limits to the sacrifices one makes for their children. G has an affair with Charles Grey, much to the rage of her hypocritical husband; he rapes her just for saying she wants to pursue the relationship. Unlike many genre films, this is not glossed over. It’s an event that hangs over the rest of their marriage, every interaction they have after. Later, when the Duke crashes G’s holiday affair, she outright asks, “Are you going to tear off my clothes and force yourself on me again?”
It isn’t wifely duties or love or some passionate jealousy that proves their marriage is true; it’s rape. And since G is no longer visibly afraid of that, the Duke threatens to destroy Grey’s career, their “mutual fantasy of a changed world will be dead as ash.” Oh, “And you will never see your children again.”
Bess is there to help G with this, she always has been. Despite ruining their friendship, Bess is constantly arguing the Duke for G’s happiness, she sets G and Grey up and keeps their affair secret—they get found out because G doesn’t give a fuck and winds up in all the gossip columns—she removes Charlotte from the hall outside of G’s bedroom when the rape is occurring. Bess did what she had to for her children, yes, but was there for her friend in the ways she could be. Now that they have common experiences, G accepts this friendship. It’s not the same as it was before, it couldn’t possibly be, but it is something to help her through this and future sacrifices she is forced by her husband to make.
Basically, this movie is the story of every brilliant bisexual woman who keeps trying to please a boring husband who won’t let her live her life. Georgiana is popular, fun, and given so much influence because of her charms and smarts. Minor characters flock to help her when she’s depressed. Charles Grey breaks into her estate and screams progressive declarations. Bess puts her own security at risk to grant G happiness with other people. The only person who yells at her and makes her cry is her stupid husband whose only argument is that he’s not sentimental or whatever. Like, dude hears her screaming in labor during a party and all he can do is propose a toast to his future heir and then pout the next day because it was a girl.
Anyway, go see this movie and then talk to me about it because this movie is hands down one of the best re-view assignments I have gotten.
But enough synopsis. Here are other reasons to watch it!
– It’s a costume drama that won an Oscar, but there’s so much more to it. It’s so well thought out, so well designed. It isn’t just, “Let me show off my fancy historical skills,” it’s actual costuming that also teams up with the overall art direction. There’s a shot when the Duke first undresses G of just her stockings stepping out of her dress that perfectly nails how infantilized she has been up until this point. There’s another of her wig being thrown off in a panic and her collapsed in a ballgown in the center of a party. My favorite was the shot of her back on her wedding night, where you can see the marks from her corset after she talks about fashion being a form of expression. Oh, a woman expressing herself can lead to pain? SIGN ME UP FOR THAT IMAGERY.
– All of the performances are grand. Atwell’s is understated in a way that leaves many of Bess’ motives open to interpretation. Dominic Cooper is the soft boy you want to run away with. And Ralph Fiennes manages to be accidentally-on-purpose funny. Like, I can’t fully explain it, but the Duke has a habit of trying to make jokes and not nailing them or of saying awkward things that points out how bad he is at emotions, and it’s really effective. I would put it in the same class of “acting techniques that are really hard” as I put “Parker Posey pretending to be a bad actor in Waiting for Guffman.”
– The rape scene, while very intense, is not shot in a voyeuristic way.
– God this movie just…I’m surprised it was made by men it was so good and actually used the historical setting to make comments about what women go through today. This movie is what I want all period pieces to be. This isn’t, “Oh women used to have it so badly.” It’s written out in such a way that you can see the parallels between then and now.
– As a polyam person, I feel like I should comment on the “unique arrangement” presented in the movie, of Bess living with a married couple. But, uh, all I can say is it’s done really well. Like, that isn’t polyamory really and it’s not really ethical nonmonogamy either since it’s based around a dude “being in charge of it all,” but the way they set it up physically and textually is really well done, I think. It’s nuanced and all of the various relationships (Bess and G, G and the Duke, the Duke and Bess) are all at play over supper.
– Again: GAYER THAN I REMEMBER. THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL.