The Duchess

14Dec10

I finally got around to watching The Duchess the other night.  I have many thoughts on it, none of which I’m sure how to put into words.

The social commentary in this film was heartbreaking in its truth.  I’m not sure if they intended it to be such a stark picture of our current state of affairs (rather than of the past), but it was.  It’s likely not a film I’ll watch again, but only because I don’t think I could bear to see those events play out another time.  It is not one that I regret watching in the first place, however.  It was most certainly not what I was expecting when I started it.

In Netflix, the movie was described thus:

Keira Knightley stars as Georgiana Spencer, a young duchess who indulges in extravagant vices and begins a scandalous affair with politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) to balance her unhappy marriage to the duke of Devonshire (Golden Globe–nominated Ralph Fiennes).

This is not exactly a lie, but it doesn’t even begin to encompass the actual film.

(Spoilers ahead.)

The movie chronicles Georgiana Spencer’s marriage to a man who rapes her from the very first sexual encounter to the last.  (Only one encounter is actually acknowledged as such, but the rest most certainly are as well.  The first scene between Georgiana and her new husband made me cringe.)  Georgiana’s husband, who is also her rapist, holds her to the sexual double-standard with which we are all so familiar — he is allowed to have as many other partners as he wishes, while she is to remain solely his property.  The catalyst of the scene that is obviously characterized as rape (of the violent sort where she screams and fights back) is Georgiana asking to be able to pursue a relationship with another man.  At this juncture, her rapist, who is also her husband, has a friend of Georgiana’s living with them so that he can pursue a relationship with her.  Georgiana did not consent to this, and requested that he make the friend leave.  Georgiana’s mother insists, throughout the entire film, that it is Georgiana’s duty to bear it and suffer through.  The duke threatens her, traps her, and strips her of the only things in her life that brought her joy (except her children, because childrearing is the responsibility of women).  And Georgiana bears it, for the sake of propriety, then for the sake of her children.

The film is Georgiana’s suffering.

I’m not even sure what I want to say about it.  It’s a film that unsettled me, but in a way that I think we need to be unsettled more often.  There’s a difference between being aware that something goes on and seeing it happen, and it is altogether too easy to grow comfortable.  This film makes sure that you are uncomfortable.

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