The Duchess


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 listed above:

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.

F. Fail.

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 Keira Knightley.

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 hook.

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.

DVD Blu-Ray


2 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
3.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
60 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
62 (of 100)












7.1 IMDB summary (of 10)
B+ Yahoo Movies















Box Office Mojo. It was eventually distributed to about 1200 theaters where it grossed about $14m.












  • Keira Knightley showed her breasts before and after a sex scene, but

WARNING: Some versions of this film have been trimmed to eliminate Keira's nudity. Beware.

  • Another woman shows her bum as she leaves the Duke's bedroom.









Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a: