On June 6, 1774, one day shy of her 18th birthday, Georgiana Spencer married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire. Based on Amanda Foreman’s biography, The Duchess recounts Georgiana’s story, a dramatic but tragic tale of one woman’s public adulation and searing private pain.
A flicker of promise gets things going as Georgiana finds herself engaged and then wed to the much older duke. But her romantic notions are shattered the moment the ceremony ends and her new husband literally cuts off her dress—with nary a word—to exact his husbandly right.
Georgiana learns that she has one purpose in the marriage: to provide a male heir. So the birth of two girls (and two stillborn boys) only fuels the duke’s contempt for his witty wife. She’d longed for a man of “patience, determination and resolution.” She gets instead a stonehearted brute who isn’t “interested in anything.” Except, she says, his dogs—and virtually every other woman he can get his hands on.
Ironically, the Duke of Devonshire is perhaps the only person in all of England who isn’t enthralled with the duchess. Whether it’s shaping fashion trends or engaging with England’s reform-minded politicians, Georgiana’s charismatic presence commands the rapt attention of everyone around her.
That adoration cannot quench her heart’s grief, however, which she shares only with her confidant, Elizabeth “Bess” Foster, who’s on the run from her own abusive husband. As difficult as Georgiana’s relationship with the duke is, Bess at least provides some consolation.
Until, that is, Georgiana hears Bess and the duke in bed together … which propels Georgiana into a disastrous affair with rising political star Charles Grey.
The Duchess depicts Georgiana as a strong, independent woman who’s devoted to the ideals of personal and political freedom. She holds her own in a discussion with a Whig politician who tries to argue that freedom should only be pursued “in moderation.” Georgiana pounces, saying that freedom is an either/or proposition—you either have it, or you don’t. Likewise, Charles promises in a speech to “take England into this brave new world” of freedom.
Georgiana knows the pain of being undervalued as a woman. But that never dissuades her from being an attentive and engaged mother to her daughters. She’s also kind to Charlotte, the duke’s daughter from a previous affair. When the duke manipulates her into choosing between Charles and her children, she chooses her offspring. Charles urges her to run away, but she replies, “I cannot abandon my children.” Georgiana’s kind spirit is also evident when she talks her husband into letting Bess stay at their estate.
After all his wicked behavior, the duke has something approximating a human moment near the film’s conclusion: He tells Georgiana that he wants “no further suffering” (never mind that that is simply impossible). And he looks at his children playing in the yard and says wistfully, “How wonderful to be that free,” perhaps implying that he, like Georgiana, feels trapped.
Unusual for a period piece like this, there’s nary a mention of God in The Duchess. The closest we get to an acknowledgment of even the church’s presence is when cathedral bells ring to announce the birth of the duke’s long-awaited son.
The duke’s ravenous sexual appetites first become apparent when he cuts the buttons off Georgiana’s wedding dress and roughly yanks back subsequent layers to uncover his terrified new bride’s body. (We see her bare shoulders and part of her bare back.) They’re quickly on the bed after he removes his shirt, and she’s obviously in pain in this sex scene that avoids nudity yet plays out in a fairly explicit way. Later, we—and Georgiana—see one of the duke’s many lovers runs naked from his chamber with a sheet over her front while her entire bare backside is visible.
Shortly after getting married, Georgiana talks with her mother about her sexual experiences. The Lady Spencer describes sex as a “burdensome obligation” which will happen less frequently after Georgiana gives the duke a son. Georgiana longs for conversation before intercourse. But her mother, believing marital sex to be a joyless, painful obligation, scoffs, “Whatever is there to talk about?”
In another conversation about sex, Bess suggests to Georgiana that it isn’t just about producing offspring, but that “it can be rather pleasurable.” To prove her point, Bess asks Georgiana to imagine that Bess is Charles. She kisses Georgiana’s neck, then reaches under her friend’s clothes and touches her briefly. We can tell from Georgiana’s response that she’s fully submitted to the fantasy.
Soon after Bess comes to live at Devonshire, the duke beds her. And Georgiana hears their loud lovemaking from outside a door. Bess quickly becomes the duke’s de facto wife and shares his bed thereafter. When Georgiana confronts her friend, Bess says that the only reason she’s doing it is because his influence enables her to be with her children (whom her husband had kept from her). Georgiana retorts with the fact that there are limits to what people should do for their children.
That Georgiana and Charles will connect sexually is practically a foregone conclusion. They eventually consummate their affair in a scene that refrains from showing them nude but which is nonetheless—once again—explicit. Later, we see them in bed together after a separate tryst.
Georgiana tries to make a deal with her husband—he can have Bess if Georgiana can continue to take Charles as her lover—but he rejects it. He calls her a whore, says he will not be made a “cuckold,” and insists that Bess’ boys are “bastard” sons instead of suitable heirs.
The duke chases Georgiana into her bedroom and pins her beneath him; we then hear the sounds of him raping her. Afterwards, he says, “Give me a son. Until then, stay here and do as I say.” This rape results in the pregnancy that finally yields a boy for the duke.
Georgiana also—eventually—becomes pregnant with Charles’ child.
A blurry painting of a nude reclining woman can be seen in the background of one scene. And it almost goes without saying that the women’s corseted costumes place a lot of cleavage on display throughout the film.
Beyond the duke’s rape of his wife, Bess has bruises on her neck that she indicates are from her abusive husband.
The duke says “d–n” three times.
Characters are frequently shown drinking wine at various meals, political functions and parties. Georgiana drinks during her pregnancy. Once, she is visibly intoxicated. (She staggers about and ends up setting her wig on fire.) The duke also gets drunk.
We see men smoking cigars.
It’s hard to overstate how cold and calculating the duke is. He claims that he has fulfilled his responsibility as a husband but says that Georgiana has not fulfilled her responsibility as a wife, namely, by producing a male heir. As if that justifies everything he’s done up to that point. His selfish character is especially evident in the fact that he treats Bess as his wife even after Georgiana confronts him. “Of all the women in England, you had to throw yourself upon her,” she says. “I have one single thing of my own, why couldn’t you have let me have Elizabeth for myself?” The duke adds insult to injury by treating Bess’ three boys almost as his own. Georgiana ends up telling the duke that she loves Charles and wants a divorce. He responds by telling her that unless she gives up her relationship with Charles, she will never see her children again.
Georgiana and Bess go to a play that mocks marriage’s constraints. We see Georgiana and many other nobles engaging in different forms of gambling at parties.
Anytime you think you’ve got it bad, consider this: You could have been born a British aristocrat. Is there anyone more miserable than 18th century nobility? According to The Duchess, the answer is no.
The Duchess finds actress Keira Knightley once again lacing up her corset as a fiery, independent woman, à la her turn as Elizabeth Bennett in 2005’s big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. But similarities between that story and this one end there. There’s all kinds of pride in The Duchess. But forget about overcoming prejudice. Instead, what we get is the increasingly painful story of a woman whose dreams are dashed upon the rocks of her husband’s stonily unalterable views about gender roles. And even as she’s subjected to his cruel dictums, viewers are subjected to scene after scene of sexual content that’s more explicit in what it powerfully suggests than what it actually shows.
We’re also invited to sympathize with Georgiana regarding her adulterous affair with Charles Grey (“Everyone has a lover,” she angrily tells her husband). Given the duke’s monstrous treatment of her, we’re tempted to rationalize, Who wouldn’t flee to the arms of a passionate soul mate in that situation?
To its credit, the film shows Georgiana wrestling with her indiscretions and eventually making the right—if heart-wrenching decision—to stay with her children instead of fleeing with Charles. And I suppose it could be argued that there’s historical merit in recognizing just how far we’ve come from the 18th century. Many of the freedoms and rights that Georgiana had only begun to imagine have been largely realized in many parts of the world.
But at the end of The Duchess I wasn’t much disposed to be thinking in those terms. Because like Atonement before it, Knightley’s latest exercise in depressing storytelling is little more than a sexually obsessed tale that ends tragically ever after.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.