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A Celebration of The Duchess: Book, Movie and DVD

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Georgiana by Thomas Gainsborough
    The movie, "The Duchess", is the story of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana is the great-great-great-great aunt of Princess Diana. Georgiana was an English aristocrat who married at a young age, and experienced a variety of struggles in her marriage. The movie focuses on her marriage to William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire; her friend (and her husband’s mistress) Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster; and on the crisis point of Georgiana’s affair with Charles, second Earl Grey. The movie is based on the book Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, written by Amanda Foreman, which won a Whitbread Prize for Biography.

I enjoyed watching the movie "The Duchess." Though, personally, I do not like movies, and I really don’t like to watch drama and conflict in art. So, there were parts of the movie–probably necessary to the story- which I will probably never be able to watch again. I am very glad that the movie has been released on a DVD version. Now, I can watch the parts of the movie I enjoy over and over again. And, the DVD also provides background and details that add to the telling of the story of Georgiana’s life.

What the DVD gave me overall:

A chance to experience author Amanda Foreman and hear her thoughts on the characters. While I have seen a youtube version of an interview with Ms. Foreman, the interview on the The Duchess DVD, with readings of Georgiana’s original letters, is more interesting and to the point.

A few moments to hear Ralph Fiennes explain the thinking process behind his brilliant portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire.

A chance to experience Keira Knightley, when she was not in character as Georgiana, which helped me to appreciate her performance.

A chance to experience scenes from the movie, and commentary on the movie, without critics taking pot-shots at Keira Knightley’s performance. I was very impressed with Ms. Knightley’s portrayal of Georgiana. It must be difficult to make a character come to life among all the pomp of wigs, and costumes, and fancy sets. The movie opens with Georgiana as an innocent 17-year-old, and ends with Georgiana as a forty-something-year-old wife and mother. Ms. Knightley is to be commended for being believable in all these variations on a character.

A chance to hear Ralph Fiennes (who the critics have shown more faith in) explain and praise Keira Knightley’s performance.
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An understanding and respect for the work of the director, Saul Dibb.

More great images of the wonderful costumes, and, a discussion of the background and symbolism of the costuming.

More great images of the set. And, the information that Chatsworth, where much of the movie was filmed, was the same location used for the 2005 Jane Austen movie “Pride and Prejudice”. Aha! Another reason that viewers experience similarities between the two movies (also, the fact that Keira Knightley appeared in both.). The Chatsworth connection is also the reason that "The Duchess" videographers did lots of tight shots on the scenery.

I believe that anytime someone wears a wig, there is always the desire to see the wig exposed. Maybe it is partly just so your brain can witness and confirm the fact that it really is a wig? While the movie provides one chance for this visual, the DVD shows the lovely Keira Knightley actually adjusting her wig. And, Ms. Knightley also explains how difficult it was to wear the wigs. So, there was some resolution of the wig dissonance.

What I think was missing from the DVD:
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It may have been too much to ask, though, I wish that the DVD could have told the whole rest of the story, and restored all the characters gone missing between the book and the movie. Georgiana’s sister, Harriet Spencer Ponsonby Bessborough is not mentioned in the movie or the DVD. Harriet was close to her sister and joined her sister in Georgiana’s time of exile from England and the Duke. Also missing is the anti-Georgiana sentiment of the Duke’s family (some of them hoping to inherit the Devonshire title and riches for themselves) and some very interesting portraits of the other society women of the day.

Because Ralph Fiennes’ performance in "The Duchess" was so brilliant, it would have been worthwhile to listen to him speak about it for hours. Though, the short taste given on the DVD is valuable. Curiously, Fiennes focuses his comments so much on the fact that the Duke was a man of his time, one wonders, briefly, if Fiennes entirely forgives the Duke for his sexism and cruelty. The part I am perhaps most frustrated about is that Fiennes made the Duke as interesting a character as Georgiana. Though, again, Fiennes’ portrayal is so profound, words could not adequately describe it, and, there can be no genuine critique of such a performance.

I am a very political person, and I am a feminist. So, for me, I wanted someone to say: Georgiana was a feminist, in a time and place where women were so oppressed and caricatured, that feminism just would not fly. I wanted the author, or the female actors, or someone to say the word feminism, and to make some bold, feminist statement about what could be learned from Georgiana’s struggle.

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Ian Wilder is co-blogger at onthewilderside. He is a peace and justice activist, and a former NY State Green Party Co-Chair.

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