October 11, 2008
What strikes me about the lukewarm critical reaction to The Duchess – starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes – is neither the objection to the acting, of which there is some and with which I disagree, nor the disappointment with the filmmakers’ methods of storytelling; but instead the lack of sympathy for the unhappy central figure. For whether the Duchess of Devonshire was a man or a woman living in any era, she was a very unhappy person. And whatever time and place you, the onlookers, live in, you should be able to appreciate the value of personal satisfaction. Shouldn’t you?
Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, called the film “an overstuffed, intellectually underbaked portrait of a poor little rich girl.” She went on to say:
Like most costume dramas of this distaff sort, The Duchess wants you to pity Georgiana while also indulging in every luscious detail of her captivity. She may have a pimp for a mother and a bore for a husband, but just look at those verdant landscapes dotted with grazing sheep (no grubbing peasants), the fabulously ornamented gowns, leaning towers of wigs, palatial digs and troops of silent servants. (It’s period-lifestyle pornography.)
For me, the real triumph of the movie is its ability to master both the elements of taste (landscapes, costumes, etc.) as well as the elements of distaste (rape, infidelity, uncomfortable sexuality). Because the former aspects are balanced with the latter, I find myself saying, “Gee, I’d love to wear those beautiful dresses, but I wouldn’t trade places with Georgiana Spencer for the world.”
Kyle Smith, New York Post critic, wrote that “Knightley is a paper doll around whom the movie wraps hoop skirts and 21st century victimology.” He’s right. Our 21st century perspective views Georgiana’s situation as pathetic. She marries an unloving, violent man unwittingly, thinking she’s gaining power, prestige and happiness too. She understands that in exchange, all she need do is conceive and birth a male heir. When she does so, she’ll be rewarded with a cash bonus. This type of marriage was perfectly commonplace in 1777 England, certainly less so today. Naturally, we see this as somewhat queer.
But just as we are naive about what lies in store for the heroine behind the sepulchral gates of her new estate, so too was Georgiana. (We expect a little hanky-panky behind closed doors right from the start of the film, for instance, but we don’t expect violence and inhumanity.) She didn’t know that she’d be obliged to raise her husband’s illegitimate child as her own. She didn’t understand that she’d have absolutely no control over the natural sex of her offspring. How could she have predicted that her best friend would become her husband’s live-in mistress and that the three would function normally as a menage a trois? And when she agreed to accept the interloper without complaint in exchange for similar extramarital immunity, how could she have suspected that her husband, the great and powerful Duke, would rape her and then threaten to take away her children if she continued her affair with the man she truly, passionately loved?
These circumstances may have been perfectly ordinary in the 1770′s, but hopefully have been eradicated through suffrage and subsequent women’s liberation movements. For Dargis – A WOMAN – to sarcastically call the Duchess a “poor little rich girl,” it means that Dargis is ignoring her 21st century feminism in favor of contempt or worse: indifference.
Maybe she isn’t a feminist. What bothers me about her review of the film is her unsympathetic assessment of this intelligent, passionate and ultimately compassionate woman of an earlier era. Dargis is perfectly within her right to critique the film – I found it entertaining and compelling myself, as evidenced by my laughter and tears – but I find it thoroughly unacceptable that her disdain for the film should hinder her sympathy for the Duchess. You can’t judge a woman by today’s standards when she doesn’t have today’s rights and privileges. Is she a poor little rich girl? In other words, is she receiving pity while basking in luxury? Certainly NOT! We don’t mourn her ups; only her downs.
The film is shot with a 21st century lens for a 21st century audience. An 18th century perspective would not be sympathetic and an 18th century audience probably wouldn’t care. Today, we get to look this woman square in the face and lament all of the great things she might have done but didn’t, with her political prowess and her humor were she blessed with a set of hairy balls…or a different birthday (say, 250 years in the future).
“(N)ot enough of (the film) is about how transgressive a character Georgiana must have been, holding forth at her husband’s dinner table on politics, going alone to political rallies,” wrote Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger critic Stephen Whitty. “(T)here’s none of the messiness of life. And that’s a shame.”
I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. Reportedly, Georgiana Spencer – who died young like her ancestor Lady Diana Spencer, at the age of 48 from what has been perceived to be a liver disease – drank excessively and gambled all of her money away. She died in debt. It’s possible that these actions were the result of her mismatched union. What’s tragic is that the film gives us a glimpse of these side-effects of unhappiness rather than an whole picture of them. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid that our 21st century sympathy and esteem would be lost on a woman who decays rather than flourishes after accepting her fate.
Film and literature are full of unhappy male characters who gamble and drink…and remain sympathetic and simultaneously heroic: Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict (another great film starring the luminous Charlotte Rampling) is one such character. He occasionally climbs out of a bottle of Scotch long enough to punish a hospital and its smug lawyer for a doctor’s negligent involvement in the death of patient. We adore Galvin. But if Frank had been Frances, she probably would have been pitiable and loathsome rather than sympathetic and heroic.
I would have liked more nudity in The Duchess, not only for the guilty pleasure of watching an authentic bodice-ripper but also for the vicarious, visceral experience of dry vaginal intercourse (as the newlyweds’ first carnal encounter is depicted) contrasted with the sensual, orgasmic lovemaking of Georgiana’s extramarital affair with Charles Grey. My husband, who galantly agreed to accompany me to this “women’s movie” – and disliked almost every minute of it, told me that he was disgusted more by the coldness of Georgiana’s wedding night than he was disturbed by her subsequent rape. As Whitty noted, the film is afraid to let us see the mess in lives lived by the Duke’s design. Let us see (experience) uncomfortable sexuality in all its tainted glory.
When we consider some of the morally compromised female characters of film and literature – the ones who lie, cheat, steal and even kill to escape unhappiness in life and marriage – we must judge them by the standards of their day. A woman in 1850, for instance, had few opportunities to earn a living (governess, retail worker, prostitute) other than marriage. And in that period, in England, there were twice as many women seeking marriage as there were men offering it. Women sometimes had to resort to foul measures to survive.
What’s so wonderful about the Duchess is that she doesn’t resort to much of anything that damages people other than herself. In the end, she sacrifices any glimmer of happiness she might have once beheld for the sanctity of her awful marriage and the vitality of her children. I admire her. Clearly, Dargis does not.
That’s okay. But where is the sympathy?
“She wasn’t scrubbing chamber pots for her keep, but she did have to endure her husband’s dalliances,” Dargis wrote, belying the more severe elements of torture inflicted upon this wife and mother of four.
As I said before, the film is successful because viewers know that they wouldn’t trade places with the Duchess even if they could. A life spent scrubbing chamber pots probably was a life spent with more integrity.