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Katherine Hunter casts her eye over the Duchess.
Historically inaccurate but does it really matter?
I have to confess that I am a fan of period dramas. I love the costumes, the emotions, the beautiful houses and Mr. Darcy. The Colin Firth one of course. Over the summer my best friend and I had the opportunity to visit Chatsworth, which was an amazing experience in itself. Whilst wandering around imagining we owned the place, we found temporary exhibition of Chatsworth’s famous daughter, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. This included pages from Georgiana’s dairy, portraits including the famous Gainsborough painting, and video clips from the up and coming film The Duchess, as well as costumes from the period, and ones worn in the film. The exhibition and subsequent talks gave us a pretty good impression of this famous lady and her intriguing life.
This prompted us to see the film, which I did as soon as it came out. And I have to confess that I was somewhat disappointed. This wasn’t the lady I had seen at Chatsworth, I had been cheated. It’s not that it wasn’t a good film, but it was meant to be a portrayal of Georgiana’s life and it glossed over all the important parts. Consequently we took great pleasure in annoying our friends by pointing out all the historical inaccuracies.
It wasn’t just that they had missed out a few details here and there; they completely changed not only the life of The Duchess but her whole personality too. In her life she had been a hugely influential woman, not only in fashion, but she had been an active political campaigner and travelled abroad often. Kiera Knightly just couldn’t carry off the flamboyance and huge presence that made Georgiana such a powerful woman in her time, not least because The Duchess was a buxom woman with a charisma to match, and Knightly is a twig with about as much charisma as a potato.
Poor acting aside the film still didn’t stand much chance. The whole reason that Georgiana’s life is so interesting is because, as the film constantly pointed out, there were three people in her marriage. The film however just used this to overplay the similarities between The Duchess and her distant descendant Diana, the Princess of Wales. The only similarity that their lives shared is that their husbands had affairs, and it’s not as if this is only a unique trait of the Spencer family.
The intriguing part of the life of Georgiana was that her husband was having an affair with her best friend Bess, who lived with them. Even after Georgiana found out about the affair, she and Bess remained best friends. This is what makes the whole situation amazingly unique and fascinating. What annoyed me most was that the film decided to change Georgina into a long suffering badly treated woman, not the independent resilient soul that she really was. It made her look like the victim of her husband’s affair, hardly focusing on the fact that she had her own affair with Charles Grey, making it look more like a depressing last resort.
The film focused on the plight of a lonely and weak woman, which to be honest, we see in films all the time. This should have been completely the opposite, a strong woman coping admirably with the life forced on her by her husband. The film ended up victimising the main character who in reality was a celebrity of her time, even if her marital life was lacking. She was followed and adored by The Ton, and rarely alone although in the film she was completely abandoned and isolated from everyone. Even Georgiana’s mother was shown to be bossy and domineering when in real life her mother had been a caring and protective woman.
The film focused almost entirely on Georgiana’s marital life, when she was also famous for her good friendship with Marie Antoinette, as she used to travel to France often. The film completely cut this out, presumably to make The Duchess appear even lonelier. The gambling side of her life was also played down, in spite of the fact that Georgiana died with a massive twenty thousand pounds worth of debt outstanding. Her huge political involvement was also cut down to a few short public appearances as a favour for Grey.
However, there were some good points to the film. Like all good period dramas the costumes were visually amazing and the backdrop of so many beautiful houses made it something special to watch. The other actors and actresses did remarkably well, considering the rather limiting script. Ralph Fiennes was particularly good as the aging and inhuman duke, and Dominic Cooper made an especially dashing young lover as Charles Grey.
All in all, the film was still good entertainment, but nevertheless I felt let down. So how important is it really to give a historically accurate view in a film?