A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that although this serious period drama stars Keira Knightley, it's not all that likely to appeal to teens since it explores the inner workings of a very flawed marriage -- one that's marred by infidelity and disloyalty and complicated by a menage a trois. There's an upsetting scene in which a man forces himself on a woman, as well as some nudity and passionate embracing. Also expect plenty of gambling and drinking, mostly at joyous events though sometimes during times of despair. At one point, a main character imbibes so much that she upends a chandelier and accidentally sets fire to her wig.
- Parents say
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What's the story?
Nearly everyone adores Georgiana Cavendish (Keira Knightley), an aristocratic 18th-century "It" girl who, after marrying at the tender age of 17, becomes a sensation for her sense of style and joie de vivre. Everyone, that is, except her husband William, Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). Though he cares about her in his own way, he's more enamored of his dogs and is fixated on Georgiana bearing him a male heir. He also has no qualms about bedding other women. In time, Georgiana learns to turn a blind eye to William's extracurricular activities, but when he decides to make Georgiana's best friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster (Hayley Atwell), his mistress, enough is enough. The duchess finally gives into her own yearnings, allowing herself to fall in love with an old friend, politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). But the Duke isn't having it.
Is it any good?
Pretty to look at but painful to contemplate, a female royal's life in the 18th century was far from enviable, as this visually splendid movie makes plain. Georgiana's anguished circumstances are highlighted by the perfection of all that surrounds her: her sumptuously decorated homes, her gardens, her jewels, her dresses and tresses. She has everything but love. But the movie, based on Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Cavendish (nee Spencer, an ancestor of none other than Princess Diana, who herself suffered a lackluster marriage), is much more than the tale of a loveless coupling. It asks an important question: How far will a woman go for her children?
Lushly photographed and costumed, THE DUCHESS won't disappoint period-movie fans. But it probably won't stick with them for very long after the credits roll, either. There's a certain superficiality in the storytelling; the history is too light and glossy, and the movie would have been far more enjoyable if it had more heft. (For instance, Georgiana forgives her friend unbelievably quickly; was it really that easy?) Knightley is splendid in the film's peaks -- watch her flirt with her entourage and command a table full of gamblers. But when it hits the valleys (and there are quite a few of them), her agony is hollow, more acting than feeling. Fiennes rules, however: William is reprehensibly cold yet aching for connection. Somehow, he's not stripped of humanity -- even though he sometimes acts like it.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what it was like to be a woman during the time in which the movie takes place. How much power did women have in the 1700s? Is the arrangement that the duchess suggests to her husband a fair one? The film depicts a number of revolutions under way, including the beginnings of the women's movement. Do you think it's all historically accurate? How could you find out? Also, do you think this drama is any different from other period dramas in feel or look? How so?
- In theaters: September 19, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: December 28, 2008
- Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes
- Director: Saul Dibb
- Studio: Paramount Vantage
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 109 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sexual content, brief nudity and thematic material.
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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