Making historical dramas and biopics is a process that comes with three
major inherent problems.
(1) If the person being portrayed was truly interesting and
important, there was probably too much happening in their lives to fit
into a single movie, so the author must eschew his natural desire to
make the script merely a litany of accomplishments. This requires a good
and disciplined screenwriter who can toss out some great stuff that he
would love to keep. Only so much can fit into 100 minutes.
(2) If the author loves or admires the subject, he must not allow
that to interfere with creating a three-dimensional character. Leave
hagiography to the Vatican.
(3) The fact that the film is historically accurate does not liberate
the filmmakers from their obligation to create an interesting and
cinematic experience. If I wanted to learn about history, I would be
reading a detailed and nuanced account of it rather than watching a
superficial 100-minute treatment of a person's life.
I'll take this third point a step further. I don't especially care
about historical accuracy when I watch a movie. What I want to watch is
a moving and/or entertaining story. I think we all know that the basic
story behind Amadeus is total bullshit, but the music is great, and the
film is funny, insightful, poignant, and has a lot to say about the
nature of genius. It is thus rated among the greatest films ever made,
and nobody really cares that it is bullshit.
In terms of The Duchess, I'd assign the following grades in each area
Area 1: condensation.
B+. Not bad.
Although the film covers a long period of time, it is focused tightly
enough on the central story of her unusual marriage.
Area 2: honesty.
This film reminds me of those adoring biographies of Princess Di
which are so intent on beatifying her that they overlook some rather
major flaws in her personality. For example, she was as dumb as a box of
rocks, and that fact is necessary to understand her
relationship with Charles. Imagine you're a reasonably intelligent
person with far-reaching interests, and are married to the most
beautiful and elegant and compassionate woman in the world, but she is
simply incapable of making conversation on any subject that interests
you. Would it be long before you were seeking other companionship?
This film basically performs a sanctification rite with Georgina
Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. It makes her seem to be a beloved
public figure and a farsighted and prescient political manipulator who
had a profound influence on the voices of freedom that inspired English
reform as well as the French and American revolutions. She comes off as
a combination of St. Francis of Assisi and Voltaire, with the looks of
Oh, get off it. In real life, "Gi" was an interesting woman who
seemed to be on the right side of most causes, and she had a truly
intriguing marriage in which her powerful husband blatantly brought
another lover into his bed, and then to their dinner table. In fact, the
Duke finally just lived publicly with both "wives" and merged all of
their various children into one family, while the Duchess somehow
managed to endure the public humiliation. She definitely had a life
which provided a good enough story for a film.
But a saint and an intellectual she was not. Her entire life revolved
around gambling and pretty clothes, and one of her best friends was the
equally naive and superficial Marie Antoinette, the queen of France who
was beheaded by the freedom-loving activists Georgina seems to support
in this film. The real duchess died with mammoth gambling debts, and
fought lifelong battles with gambling, eating disorders, drug addiction,
and excessive alcohol consumption.
By the way, the duchess did have a lot in common with Di, who is a
direct descendant of Georgina's brother. Both Di and Georgina were born
with the surname Spencer at the family home in Althorp, some two
centuries apart. Both were engaged while still teenage virgins, and in
both cases to the second-most powerful person in England. Neither
marriage was happy, and both women were subjected to the public
humiliation of having "three of us in the marriage." In both cases, the
husband outlived them, and eventually ended up legally married to that
third person. Both Gi and Di were extremely popular public figures who
attracted curious crowds wherever they went. Both were considered
beautiful and impeccably fashionable, and were portrayed by the great
artists of their own eras.
Georgina bore, by the way, a child by Earl Grey (yup, the tea guy),
who became prime minister many years after their affair, a quarter of a
century after Georgina had shuffled off this mortal coil.
Area 3: cinematic appeal, as opposed to historical appeal.
C+. Some appeal, but only to a targeted audience.
The film has some very strong aspects: the acting is outstanding; the
costumes and hairstyles are luscious; the sets and cinematography are
gorgeous. Unfortunately for me, those are minor elements in my overall
enjoyment of a historical film, possibly as a result of a fairly common
biological malady which has left me bereft of vaginas. I would rather
hear brilliant badinage between great wits, encounter the thoughts of
great thinkers, hear great period music, and see a plot with an engaging
Pretty costumes? Meh.
In short, this film is competently presented, but is a hagiographical
whitewash and fundamentally a chick-flick. I shan't give it a thumb down
because it held my attention throughout its running time, but it never
really engaged me, so my thumb remains parallel to the ground.