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Film / The Duchess

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The Duchess is a 2008 film from BBC Films and Pathé (distributed in America by Paramount), directed by Saul Gibb, with musical score by Rachel Portman, and starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper.

Set at the end of the eighteenth century, the film is based on the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. While her beauty and charisma made her name, her extravagant tastes and appetite for gambling and love made her infamous. Married young to the older, distant Duke of Devonshire, who was blatantly unfaithful, Georgiana became a fashion icon, a doting mother, a shrewd political operator, intimate of ministers and princes, and darling of the common people. But at the core of the story is a desperate search for love. The film delves into Georgiana’s passionate and doomed affair with Charles Grey, the future Prime Minister and Earl Grey, and the complex love triangle with her husband and her best friend, Lady Bess Foster.

This film provides examples of:

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Arguably played straight with the Duke, the closest thing the film has to an antagonist. Averted with Georgiana and Charles.
  • Arranged Marriage: Georgiana's marriage to the Duke. She's initially optimistic, but everything quickly goes to hell.
  • Biopic: It’s based on the life of an entirely real figure — although it’s a bit of a borderline case, as it doesn’t cover her entire life.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Despite everyone having a mostly Happy Ending, Georgiana remains married to the Duke until her death and never rekindled her affair with Charles Grey, although she did often visit their daughter in secret.
  • Child by Rape: It's implied that Georgiana's son is conceived when she’s raped by her husband in a fit of anger.
  • Costume Drama: It's a drama set in the 18th Century...
  • Costume Porn: It's set in the 18th Century, after all.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Your husband can take your children away from you, and there's nothing you can do about it because you're a woman and he has the law on his side. This briefly happens to Bess, while the Duke threatens to do this to Georgiana if she continues her affair.
  • Easily Forgiven: Georgiana forgives both the Duke and Bess in the end, despite all of the suffering they put her through. Bess is more easily forgiven as Georgiana comes to realise that Bess only had the affair (initially) to regain her children, something she herself experiences later. Georgiana however never fully forgives the Duke or lets him forget the time he raped her, naturally.
  • The Gambling Addict: Georgiana has shades of this, becoming infamous for her gambling habits. It's implied that she indulges in gambling as an outlet for her emotions in her miserable marriage. This is Truth in Television, as well.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: The Duke's affairs are treated more harshly due to him being indiscreet, having multiple affairs just because he can and humiliating his wife in the process. His affair with Bess in particular is treated as a Kick the Dog moment, as Bess is Georgiana's best friend and "the sole comfort" in their miserable marriage. Georgiana, on the other hand, is treated as a Sympathetic Adulterer, as the Duke cheats on her first and is cold and downright abusive towards her, and she only has an affair with one man whom she genuinely loves. Of course, in the film's setting, the Duke is the 'good' adulterer, as having affairs was considered normal and even healthy for 18th Century men, whilst Georgiana is the 'bad' adulterer, as women who had affairs were considered immoral and loose.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Georgiana (and most of the female cast) wear several over the course of the film.
  • Historical In-Joke: The newspaper political cartoon parodying Georgiana really did exist.
  • Hypocrite: The Duke has numerous affairs and expects Georgiana to just put up with it, but the moment she asks if she could have a lover of her own (whom she genuinely cares for), he completely loses it. He also forces her to raise his illegitimate child as her own but makes her give away her own illegitimate child to Charles' relatives. This is a result of Values Dissonance, as in the 18th Century it was considered quite normal for men to cheat on their wives, whilst a woman cheating was considered scandalous.
  • Jerkass: The Duke. Has shades of Jerkass Woobie towards the end.
  • Love Triangle: A complicated example. Georgiana and the Duke have an Arranged Marriage, which becomes bitter and loveless. The Duke has numerous affairs and eventually takes Georgiana's best friend Bess as his mistress, which Georgiana is very unhappy about. She then starts her own affair with Charles Grey, which makes the Duke unhappy. Eventually, Georgiana is forced to stop seeing Grey and the Duke marries Bess upon her death.
  • Marital Rape License: The Duke rapes Georgiana after his discovery of her affair with Charles Grey, and nobody does anything even when they hear her screaming. In the 18th Century, women were considered the property of their husbands who were thus entitled to sex with them, whether they wanted it or not. Given that marital rape wasn't completely outlawed in England until the R v R case in 1991, this Values Dissonance isn't quite as old as many suppose.
  • The Mistress: Bess ends up becoming this to the Duke. Georgiana is less than impressed at first, but eventually accepts it and even gives them her blessing to marry after her death. Charles Grey is a gender inverted version of this for Georgiana, but it doesn't end well.
  • Polyamory: Georgiana, the Duke and Bess live together for over 25 years, until the former's death.
  • Pretty in Mink: One of Georgiana's outfits has a red fox muff and a nice hat with fox tails. She also has a maternity dress with fur trim.
  • Questionable Consent: How much Bess had to say in regards of becoming the Duke's mistress is left ambiguous, since her response to being questioned by Georgiana about it is that the Duke was the only man with the power to return Bess's children to her, the implication being that the Duke exercised Sexual Extortion on Bess. Nonetheless, it's mentioned that Bess and the Duke ultimately continued their affair well after her children were a factor, and even married after Georgiana's death.
  • Sadistic Choice: Towards the end of the film, Georgiana's husband tells her he'll forbid her from seeing her children and ruin Grey's political career if she continues her affair with him, despite the fact he's the only source of happiness she has in their marriage. Georgiana ends up agreeing to this, as at least this way she can still see her children and her lover's career is safe.
  • Socialite: Georgiana is something of a classic Real Life example.
  • Spirited Young Lady: The Duchess of Devonshire, known for her beauty and fashion sense, desperately wants to make a love connection. After her husband betrays her she turns to the man who shares her political ideals, Charles Grey, whom she campaigned for. When the statesmen around her were interested to know her thoughts she expressed to them her option that the concept of freedom is an absolute.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Georgiana and Charles Grey, due to her already being married to a neglectful and abusive Jerkass, in a society where divorce and a woman having an affair are considered huge taboos. Georgiana is later forced by her husband to end her relationship with Grey, or he'll never let her see her children again.
  • The Stoic: The Duke.
  • Table Space: Used frequently, particularly when relationships are strained.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Charles Grey, who would later go on to become Prime Minister and implement the 1832 Reform Act.