The Duchess: Politics and Love Make Bad Bedfellows

The subtitles tell us this is based on a true story.

We open on a woman’s skirt trailing through the grass, then get a glimpse of the back of her head, which sports a curly late-18th century hairdo. She approaches her girlfriends with a man’s tricorn hat in one hand, and goes from girl to girl, each one pulling a name out of the hat that corresponds to one of the eager young aristocratic gentlemen stripping off their jackets and warming up on the grass. The young woman we started with is the last to pick, and she turns so we can see that she’s quite fresh-faced and lovely. She’s picked Charles Grey out of the hat and tells him not to let her down, she’s got 20 guineas riding on him. That was  a pretty huge bet at the time. He cheekily tells her she should double it and joins the other gentlemen, who are lining up for a race. Our heroine—Georgiana—leads the girls to a better vantage point, and the helpful subtitles return to tell us this is the Althorpe Estate in England (I think the accents and titles gave that away, but thanks anyway, subtitles). The year is 1774.

Georgiana starts the race and the gentlemen dash off as the girls shriek encouragement, unaware that they, or Georgiana at least, are being observed by an older gentleman in a powdered wig, who’s inside the house. This is the Duke of Devonshire, and he’s swung by with a lawyer to meet with Georgiana’s parents, the Earl and Countess Spencer, to plan out the young girl’s entire future.

The atmosphere in the room is rather heavy—nobody’s talking, and the Duke is just standing at the window, watching Georgiana and her friends outside. The Countess tries to break the ice by praising Georgiana and laundry listing her many talents and accomplishments. Among other things, she’s fluent in several languages and great at dancing and horseback riding, etc. All the usual talents for a young woman of her class and time. The duke doesn’t really care much about any of that—as his lawyer reminds everyone in the room, Georgiana’s primary function will be breeding a son and heir to the dukedom, which will net her a handsome monetary reward. The Countess reassures the Duke that the women in their family have never failed to produce sons, so the deal’s on. The Duke coldly says:

“So be it, then.” Talk about romance.

The Duke of Devonshire: Tragically Born Without a Personality

Outside, Charles Grey leaves the other men in the dust and Georgian a wins her bet. Grey approaches her and asks for his reward. She flirtily asks him what he’s expecting, but before things can get interesting, a footman interrupts to tell Georgiana her mother wants to see her.

Lady Spencer is now alone—the Duke evidently didn’t see any reason to prolong his stay. Georgiana joins her and immediately apologizes for making too much noise with her friends, but the Countess is in a good mood and waves this off. She happily informs Georgiana that she’ll soon be addressed as Her Grace, the Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana is astonished, and rightly so. The Duke was considered something of a catch at that time. He was incredibly rich, and being a Duke put him just below the royal family, in terms of rank. Sadly, he apparently had no personality to speak of (as we’ve seen), but most people considered his fortune enough to make up for that. Georgiana was only a teenager at this time, so she was pretty wrapped up in the glamour of becoming a rich duchess and making a really, really good match, which was, after all, the job of girls like her at this time.

Lady Spencer regrets having to part with her daughter at such a young age, but knows that such a good match can’t be tossed aside. Georgiana’s excited, and amazed that the Duke can be in love with her, considering they’ve only met twice. Her mother counsels that when someone really loves someone else, they don’t have to get to know each other or anything, they just know! Great advice, mom. I’m sure that won’t come back to bite anyone in the ass at all.

Georgiana heads out onto a balcony overlooking the lawn, where her friends are strolling. She takes it all in with new eyes, no longer a girl, but a young woman about to head out on her own.

In a candlelit chapel, Georgiana, with a huge hairdo and draped in diamonds, solemnly approaches her groom. He bows politely to her, and she manages to nod to him without her neck snapping under the weight of that hair.

Someday, she’ll discover that giant hair and candles are a terrible combination

After the ceremony, she and the Duke travel to his London townhouse in an elaborate carriage through throngs of cheering people who have turned out to see the Duke and his new, young Duchess. She smiles happily at the attention and adulation, already enjoying it.

The carriage rolls into the courtyard of a HUGE house. In front, the footmen and maids are lined up to meet their new mistress. The Duke descends and Georgiana is helped out of the carriage and ushered inside. The servants bow low as she moves past them and enters a cold, intimidating marble hall. The Duke’s left her in the dust to affectionately greet his dogs. This is actually an accurate character point—the Duke was really into his dogs. In their letters to each other, Georgiana and Lady Bess Foster codenamed him “Canis” because of it.

That night, two maids help Georgiana undress as she looks around her new room. It’s cavernous and dark, lit only by candles. The Duke enters and dismisses the maids, taking a tiny pair of scissors from one of them. He checks Georgiana out with a cold curiosity, the way you’d look at a museum exhibit, and then begins to undress her, starting by snipping the little threads that hold the stomacher to the bodice of her dress. Georgiana is understandably unnerved by this and stands there awkwardly. The Duke wonders aloud why women’s clothes have to be so complicated, as if he himself isn’t wearing about 20 layers at the moment. Georgiana shrugs and says it’s just how women express themselves. Men, she says, have so many ways to express themselves in the world, whereas women only have fashion. The Duke makes no response other than to lower her shift, leaving her standing there, looking cold and naked and uncertain. He politely asks her to go to the bed, and she obeys as he undresses. She looks nervous as he approaches and lays on top of her. They kiss, and suddenly she gasps and looks really uncomfortable. Looks like the Duke’s not much for foreplay.

I’ve often wondered how 18th century lawns were managed (well, not often, but once or twice) and thanks to this movie, now I know: we cut to gardeners hard at work outside, and one guy is on his hands and knees with a pair of clippers cutting the lawn by hand. Man, what a totally crap job.  Although, I guess by the standards of the time, it actually wasn’t that bad at all.

Meanwhile, Georgiana is inside playing cards with her mother and being told that marriage brings with it certain responsibilities, like sex, which can, her mother agrees, be a bother, but once Georgiana pops out a son, the Duke’ll leave her alone, so just get yourself knocked up and you don’t have to worry about it. Georgiana’s starting to realise that there might be more to a relationship and successful marriage than just tolerating each other. She tells her mother that things might not be so awkward if the Duke would just talk to her every once in a while. The Duke, it seems, has no interests outside of his dogs. Lady Spencer can’t imagine why anyone would want to talk to one’s husband and tells her daughter to be patient and things will settle down.

G and the Duke are having a political dinner party—the guests are all men, and one of them is giving a long-winded speech about ending slavery and giving rights to the common man. He’s totally preaching to the choir here, so I guess this is sort of like stump speech practice for him. The Duke is looking bored out of his mind, slumped at the head of the table, but Georgiana’s lapping it up. The politician toasts his host and hostess, and afterwards, one of his buddies congratulates him on the speech, calling him Mr. Fox. This is Charles James Fox, son of the politician Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, and Lady Caroline Lennox. Someone asks Georgiana what she thought of the speech and she admits she’s not at ease yet with political speak and thinks she might have misunderstood some parts of the speech. Fox asks her to elaborate and she tells him she’s not quite sure the Whig party, to which all the attendants at the party belong, is really fully committed to freedom for all as they claim. Fox explains that they’re totally committed to freedom…in moderation. That is, giving the vote to most men. Georgiana calls him out on the vagueness of this statement—you’re either free or not, you can’t be moderately free any more than you can be moderately dead.

At this point, another guest stands to give a toast, but before he can get more than a few words in, the Duke rises and just walks out. Georgiana hurries out after him, catching up with him in a corridor, where he’s talking to a maid. Georgiana asks if something’s wrong, and he says no, but he was done eating and was bored, so he left. What is he, four years old? Isn’t that his party? Don’t invite a bunch of politicians to your house if you don’t want to hear a lot of long-winded speeches. Problem solved. The Duke heads off, and Georgiana asks if she should go with him, but he says no, of course not, why would she?

So, Georgiana returns to the party and tells everyone with a bright smile at the Duke is well but just wanted to rest a while. Fox asks if he talked too long, and Georgiana tells him the Duke loved the speech and hoped the next one would be even longer. Heh.

As Georgiana heads to bed later, the maid the Duke was chatting with earlier comes hurrying out of his room, naked. She pauses just long enough to look back at Georgiana, who’s dumbstruck by this. And rightly so—the woman couldn’t have at least gotten dressed? This is pretty absurd.

Georgiana bursts into the Duke’s room to ask him what the hell is going on here, and he quietly answers that it doesn’t concern her. He’s sitting on the bed and calls her over to compliment her on the dress, which is one of her own designs. Georgiana’s looking a little shaky and upset, especially once she notices two wine glasses on the bedside table. The Duke starts to kiss her hand and she looks completely grossed out.

Being a Duke apparently means you not only get a giant marble house, you also get a private harpsichordist to play during breakfast. The Duke waves off a footman carrying a dish, who goes to the opposite end of the long, long breakfast table to offer the same dish to Georgiana. Another footman whispers something to the Duke, who tells him to “send them in.” Georgiana perks up and asks if they have company, but instead of answering her, he starts complaining about the mutton. After a few moments, a woman enters, leading a very young and plainly dressed girl by the hand. The Duke introduces the little girl as Charlotte and informs his wife that Charlotte will be staying with them. Somewhat taken aback, Georgiana asks why, and the Duke nods to the servant to take Charlotte out before telling Georgiana that the child’s mother is dead and she has nowhere else to go. Georgiana’s caught up by now and asks if the Duke is the father of the child. For the first time, we notice that Georgiana herself is pregnant. Instead of answering, the Duke tells her that Charlotte’s small and won’t be a bother. He even adds that it’ll be nice practice for her, until their son arrives. Georgiana looks a bit horrified. If it makes anyone feel any better, Charlotte was born before the Duke married Georgiana, so there’s not much reason for her to hold a grudge against the kid.

Apparently, Georgiana comes to the same conclusion, because we later catch up with her pausing outside Charlotte’s room. The servant who brought Charlotte in is comforting the little girl, who’s scared and upset in this new place, with all these strangers. Georgiana hesitates, almost keeps going, but ultimately enters the room, sits on the edge of the bed, and kindly introduces herself.

Party time! Carriages are pulling up at Devonshire House and expelling Mr. Fox and a few cronies, who quickly help themselves to glasses of wine before finding Georgiana, who’s now quite heavily pregnant. Fox’s friend, the playwright Sheridan, compliments her, and Fox tries to one-up him by saying a large belly never looked so good on any woman. The two men start verbally sparring about Fox’s weight, entertaining Georgiana, who then takes them both and escorts them up to the ballroom, making her way past some 18th century paparazzi, sketching her as fast as they can.

Upstairs, the gambling is in full swing, and Georgiana wins (for once) and claps, smiling happily. That smile is wiped clean off her face a moment later and everyone who’s ever watched a movie or TV show knows she’s just gone into labor. Sheridan is the first to notice all is not well, and he asks her if she’s ok as a few of her girlfriends flutter over. Georgiana starts to gasp in pain as she’s helped out of the room. As she wails dramatically from the doorway, the Duke rises and toasts his son, the 6th Duke of Devonshire.

Or not. Lady Spencer arrives and is shown inside, but on her way to her daughter’s room, she spots the Duke playing ball with his dogs, because when you’re a duke with a giant marble palace to live in, you get to play ball in the house. She greets him, but he sourly tells her he’s not in the mood to chat. He nastily asks her if her daughter’s capable of giving him a son. I think the correct question is, actually, are you, your grace? But, of course, they didn’t realise that men had much of anything to do with babies then, so it was all on the women to produce boys, as if they had any say over it. Lady Spencer tries to reassure him that this means Georgiana’s totally able to have healthy babies, and he just has to be patient, but he cuts her off pissily, so she leaves him.

Georgiana’s not at all disappointed in her baby girl—in her room, she’s crouched over the cradle, entertaining the baby as her mother enters. She asks after the Duke and tells her mother all he did was glance at the baby and then leave. Lady Spencer tries to reassure her daughter and then steers the conversation to less volatile territory by complimenting the infant. When the baby starts to fuss, Lady Spencer calls for a nurse, but Georgiana belays the order, saying she’ll feed the baby herself. This was a very new, but fashionable idea at the time, and Lady Spencer asks if she’s sure. She is indeed. Down the hall with the dogs, the Duke hears the baby cry and throws the ball across the room in frustration.

Six years later, three carriages are cruising through the picturesque English countryside, on the road to Bath. In one carriage are three adorable and well-behaved little girls playing cards. The subtitles introduce them as Charlotte, Little G, and Harryo. In the seat opposite them, Georgiana watches her budding gamblers fondly. Gotta get ‘em started young, I guess. In another carriage the Duke sits alone, with only his two dogs on the opposite seat for company. For some reason, I found this both cute and sad.

In Bath, Georgiana is being adoringly introduced to a crowd at a ball as the “Empress of Fashion.” She enters the room with a towering hairstyle sprouting enormous feathers. She entertains the room for a few moments as the Duke looks on, and then they all get on with the dancing. I heard an interview with Keira Knightly where she said the wig she had to wear in this scene was so heavy she literally couldn’t keep her head up, and was starting to hurt her neck, so they constructed some crazy contraption for her to rest her head on between takes. That’s some dedication to the craft right there.

As Georgiana dances, she notices her husband cross the room and approach a voluptuous dark-haired woman played by Hayley Atwell, who’s currently kicking ass and taking names over on Pillars of the Earth. We don’t hear what they’re saying, but it’s clear that what the Duke’s selling, this woman’s not buying. He backs off, defeated and Georgiana takes note. The dark-haired woman heads over to the refreshment table, and Georgiana excuses herself from the dancing to join her. The woman introduces herself as Lady Elizabeth Foster, and Georgiana tells her she saw her talking to the Duke a moment ago. Lady Elizabeth tells her the Duke wanted a dance, which G notes is not usually the Duke’s forte. G asks Bess what brings him to Bath. Bess makes no effort to sugarcoat the truth: her husband’s banging his mistress in Bournemouth, so she went to Bath to party. And Georgiana? G tells her the Devonshires are there for the Duke’s gout. Oh really? “I heard you were here because you couldn’t conceive a son,” Bess blurts out. She apologizes immediately, but G seems to like Bess’s candor. The budding friendship is put briefly on hold when the Duke approaches and tells Georgiana they’re heading out. G asks Bess where she’s staying and says they’ll have to get together sometime soon.

“I have to ask–Is the giant hair compensation for the lack of breasts?”

On a bright, sunny day, G is out walking with the three little girls, who are chasing each other along a riverbank. The youngest, Harryo, trips and falls, and G comforts her for a little while before sending the kids off on a race to the bridge. As they run off, Bess joins her from out of nowhere and wonders aloud why they can’t just pop back up and recover the way kids can? G figures it’s because it’s too far to fall now. Plus, those dresses weren’t known for maneuverability. If you fell, you’d probably be down for a week while you untangled yourself. But I don’t think they’re talking about physically falling anymore, do you?

Bess compliments G on her pretty girls and G asks if Bess has any kids. Indeed, three boys. Lucky girl. Bess comments on the fact that Charlotte looks nothing like G, and G fills her in on Charlotte’s history. Despite Charlotte’s parentage, G clearly loves her, just as she loves Little G and Harryo. It’s quite sweet. She calls the children over to meet Bess.

Later, G and Bess are taking the thermal water Bath is so well known for. Bess winces at the smell, as she should. I’ve tried that stuff, and it’s godawful. It’s sulphuric, so it tastes like ass. But G has to drink it every day for four weeks. Poor thing.

Bess is clearly a stranger to appropriate conversation topics for brand new friends, and she asks G if she has any reason to believe she can’t have a son. What kind of reason could there possibly be? She can clearly have kids, so, presumably, she can have a son. Even back then, people knew it was essentially a crapshoot. Believe me, if women could control the sex of their kids, everyone in Georgiana’s position would just have half a dozen boys to keep themselves secure.

G sighs that she’s had miscarriages and two stillborn sons, but also two healthy girls, so she can carry a baby to term; hopefully it’s just a matter of time before that much-wanted boy comes along.

The two ladies wander over to a bench and Bess comments that everyone’s staring at Georgiana, which is bound to happen when you’re the 18th century equivalent of a rock star. As Bess turns her head, she reveals an angry looking red patch on the back of her neck. Georgiana asks what’s up with that, and Bess fills her in on a delightful bit of Georgian-era law: it’s not illegal for a man to beat his wife with a stick, as long as the stick is no thicker than his thumb. Who the hell came up with that law? And why so arbitrary? A man’s thumb is typically pretty damn thick, too. Geez. (By the way: that’s where the saying ‘rule of thumb’ comes from.)

Georgiana looks horrified, but there’s more: Mr. Foster has taken Bess’s children from her, which was entirely legal back then, and there was really no recourse for women. Bess, of course, is whitewashing her history considerably. Her husband was no saint, but she certainly wasn’t either. She got bored with him while pregnant with their second child (she had two kids with him, not three, as the movie says. I have no idea why they changed that) and apparently had an affair. Mr. Foster took the kids and kicked Bess to the curb, and her parsimonious asshat of a father refused to support her, only giving her a pittance to live on, which is why she was living in the cheap area of Bath. Bess would go on to have numerous affairs with several high-ranking members of the British aristocracy, and she really created waves with her behaviour while she was abroad in Europe for a while.

Anyway, she’s got G’s sympathy, and G swears to help Bess find somewhere to stay. That night at dinner, she mentions to the Duke that they’ll be leaving in the morning, and Lady Elizabeth almost never gets to go to London because she has nowhere to stay. The Duke thickly nods his way through the conversation, murmuring things like “pity, that” and “that is a problem” before finally doing what the girls had been hoping he would and suggesting Lady Elizabeth stay with them. For a while, at least. Georgiana looks triumphant. She’s going to regret this enormously (spoiler!)

The girls arrive at Devonshire House, and Georgiana gives Bess a quick rundown of their many real estate holdings. Bess, meanwhile, is checking the place out like she’s already starting to rearrange the furniture. Georgiana fawns that she’s sooooo glad Elizabeth is there, and says she’s got a wonderful start to the season planned.

The Devonshires, and Bess, are taking in a play—Sheridan’s School for Scandal, I believe, which was apparently at least partly based on the Devonshires’ marriage. This correlation is not lost on the crowd or on the Devonshires as the actors playing Sir Peter Teazle and Lady Teazle bicker over what a terrible idea their marriage was, Lady Teazle calling her husband an “old, gangling bachelor.” The crowd roars with laughter and the Duke starts to look offended. Georgiana’s enjoying herself, though, and as she scans the crowd she catches sight of Charles Grey.

The Gleesome Threesome

After the play, Georgiana introduces Mr. Fox to Bess, and he returns the favour by introducing the two ladies to his protégé, Mr. Grey. Fox describes Grey as their “newest, bright young man” in parliament. G smiles at him and says she always knew he’d do well. He did it quickly, too. He was only about 22 years old at this point, and recently graduated from Cambridge. Fox and Bess wander off, and G asks Grey if he enjoyed the play. Grey confesses he didn’t, and says it seemed more like a tragedy than a comedy to him. Before things can get really awkward, Sheridan interrupts and Georgiana introduces him to Bess. Sheridan steals Georgiana and takes her away to introduce her to the cast, leaving Bess and Grey alone. Gray asks Bess if “it’s always like this” and Bess candidly tells him that it seems the Duke of Devonshire is the only man in England not in love with his wife.

And now, the obligatory lesbian scene, weirdly shoved in here to reward all the men who’ve gone to see this movie with their wives and girlfriends. Here goes.

Georgiana, dressed for bed, approaches Bess’s bed with a glass of wine and asks if she was able to enjoy herself at all that night. Bess responds that it was a wonderful distraction, taking a sip of G’s wine. She also says that she spoke with Mr. Grey for a while, and that he’s totally in love with Georgiana. Wow, she intuits fast.

Georgiana scoffs that not only is Grey not in love with her, but he feels quite the opposite. I’m not sure how she got that impression since they seemed rather friendly in both the scenes we’ve seen them together, but ok, whatever. Bess presses on, asking if Georgiana has ever seen the way he looks at her. Probably not. Men tend to not stare mooney eyed at women they’re crushing on when that woman’s looking directly at them. G tells her to leave off, so Bess decides this is a good time for a little sex ed. She tells G that sex isn’t just about getting pregnant, it can be fun and recreational too. G bravely says that she knows, although she clearly doesn’t, and Bess tells her to close her eyes and imagine Grey undressing her and slowly seducing her. G laughs that men don’t do that, because in her very sad world, they don’t, and Bess knowingly says that they do, actually. She sets the wine aside, comes over to G’s side of the bed, and takes up a position right behind her, telling her to close her eyes. G giggles but obeys. Bess begins to paint a picture: Grey is behind you, slowly opening your dress… She starts to undo the ribbon ties down the front of G’s robe, pulls her nightgown partway down, kisses her neck and back, and lets her hand travel slowly south…G gasps, so we know exactly where Bess’s hand ended up.

“There, see?” Bess says. Breathless, Georgiana pulls her robe closed. Scene over. Ok, guys, you happy?

G and the Duke are having another party, and this time, Grey’s invited. Georgiana asks him how the upcoming election is looking, and he says it’s not too rosy, to be honest. So G offers him her celebrity as a draw.

Georgiana’s entering the political arena—dressed in the Whig colors of blue and buff, with a clever fox fur hat and muff, she ascends a staircase to a raised platform in front of a cheering crowd to introduce Charles Grey. Grey gives a speech that’s heavy on hyperbole, like most political speeches, but it definitely gets a response. Afterwards, he retreats to a nearby building to collect himself, and when G catches up with him he asks how he did. She lets him swing for a few moments, but then tells him he was wonderful. He admits to being nervous, and says he’s nervous even then. G makes sure nobody’s nearby before dropping her voice and asking him if he thinks about her when she’s not around. Looking like an earnest schoolboy, he replies that she must know he does. She gives him an out here, telling him he hesitated before he replied, even though he totally didn’t, but he reaches out and catches her hand as she tries to go. They stare at each other for a moment, and he tells her he’s not used to being asked so directly, especially not by someone like her. And then he tells her he thinks about her all the time and always has. Direct question? Meet direct answer. Before Georgiana can reply, her footman approaches to tell her the carriage is ready. I bet that guy’s going to find himself cleaning out the stables with his hands for a week to teach him to have better timing.

G practically floats down the hall at home, wrapped in happy thoughts, until she comes across two servants listening at Bess’s door. She asks what the hell they’re doing, and then hears the unmistakable sound of two people getting it on inside—and definitely enjoying it. She asks the servants who’s in the room with Bess, but she knows, and they skedaddle without responding. She listens for a few more moments, disgusted, and then turns and goes, her feet now heavy with disappointment and misery.

Much later, the Duke returns to his own room, somewhat dishevelled, to find G waiting for him.

“Of all the women in England, you had to throw yourself on her,” she growls. She goes on to give quite the speech, telling him she’s never objected to him screwing other women since the day they were married, that she raised his kid as her own, and then he has to go and take her best friend from her. In her own house, no less. The Duke doesn’t seem to know what to say to all this, and he looks like he feels bad about this, as if he didn’t quite realize how close she and Bess were and the extent of the damage he was doing. He approaches G, apparently to comfort her, but she backs away from him, and he backs off, sits down heavily, and rather sadly tells her he’s never claimed to be anything great, but that he’s always know what he was supposed to give to this marriage, and what he was supposed to get in return. He feels he’s fulfilled his obligations as a husband, but she hasn’t fulfilled hers as a wife. It’s some nerve to bring that up right now, dude.

G tells him Bess has to go; she doesn’t want her around the house for a minute longer, and the Duke snaps at her to mind her temper. G repeats that she wants Bess out, as Bess overhears everything from the hall. Inside the room, the Duke tells G here’s no way he’s sending Bess anywhere.

Georgiana goes running to her mother for sympathy, and Lady Spencer oh-so-helpfully tells G she never liked Bess anyway. She says she’s glad Bess’ll be out of Devonshire House, at least, but the look on G’s face makes it clear that this isn’t the case. Unfairly, Lady Spencer dumps it all on her, demanding to know what Georgiana allowed to happen, as if G really had any say in this, ultimately. It’s her husband’s house, and he decides who stays and goes. Remember how they had to make it seem like inviting Bess in the first place was his idea?

G bursts into tears and begs her mother to help her, and Lady Spencer tells her to write to her husband and tell him to send Bess away. Georgiana tells her the Duke’s refused to do that, so the only thing to do, according to Lady Spencer, is for Georgiana to go home and resume her duties like a good wife. G is horrified at the idea, and who can blame her? What a crappy situation, having to live under the same roof as the woman your husband’s blatantly sleeping with. Lady Spencer advises Georgiana to give up all the gambling and partying, give the Duke his son, and soon enough the Duke will tire of Bess. As Lady Spencer says, Georgiana has no other option.

Georgiana sadly arrives back home at Devonshire House, barely acknowledging her husband when he greets her in the entryway. Bess watches her arrival from a balcony. Man, the balls on that woman. I mean, it’s one thing to seduce your best friend’s husband, but to refuse to leave her home and continue to submit her to humiliation for years while carrying on an affair with her husband that everyone you know knows about, all for your own selfish ends? That takes some serious nerve. I know Bess was in a very tight spot, financially, and that her social position as the daughter of an earl meant that she didn’t really have any avenues open to her to make money, but this seems a little extreme. Couldn’t she have just had the Duke set her up in a little house of her own somewhere? Surely he could afford it, even after paying off G’s many enormous gambling debts.

In her room, G thoughtfully plays with a bottle of perfume when Bess walks in. G is enraged and tells her to piss off and leave her alone, but Bess stands firm and asks for a chance to explain. The Duke, she says, could help her get custody of her children. G spits that there are limits to the sacrifices one makes for one’s children, which is a pretty odd and selfish thing for a mother to say, and Bess points out that no, actually, there aren’t. G just tells her to get out, and Bess turns and goes.

G strolls over to her window, which overlooks the courtyard, and watches as a carriage pulls up and a servant helps three little boys out. Bess runs out of the house and joyfully greets them. Wow, the Duke worked fast on that custody issue. That must’ve been some really good sex.

G heads down a hall and approaches one of the sitting rooms, where Bess, the Duke, and the three boys make a happy little family scene as the Duke shows the oldest boy how a gun works. Georgiana watches all this from afar, looking completely and utterly crushed.

Since her mother failed her, G looks for comfort elsewhere, meeting Grey at a beautiful park somewhere. They stroll in silence for a little while, and then Charles asks if she told the Duke who she was meeting. No. Did he ask? No, he has other things on his mind. Charles observes that she does as well, and he asks if she feels like sharing. Not really, she says. Besides, it would only bore him. Charles tells her she doesn’t need to please other people all the time, and she points out that that’s what she was brought up to do—pleasing others is her full-time job. But Charles has a different take—he thinks she does it so people will love her. This upsets her, she says it makes her sound pitiable, and she takes off. Charles pursues her and apologizes for upsetting her, and she turns to face him. He begs her to tell him what’s wrong, and she tells him she’s afraid she did some things too early, and left other things too late. He tells her she hasn’t done anything of the kind, and kisses her tenderly. He apologises for doing so, but she jumps at him, and they kiss passionately. It’s actually kind of hot, which is not something I ever thought I’d be saying about Dominic Cooper, who I usually don’t care for.

At the world’s most awkward breakfast table, the Duke sits at the head, G at the foot, and Bess in between. No symbolism here at all. G finally puts down her fork and asks the Duke and Bess if they love each other. The Duke’s not prepared for this conversation, or any conversation about something as complicated as feelings, but Bess reassures G that she makes no demands on the Duke. G asks Bess if she loves the Duke, and Bess replies in the affirmative, which means she’ll be staying. Could she find it in her hear to buzz off? No, of course not. So, Georgiana proposes a deal: she’ll give the Duke and Bess her blessing, if her husband accepts her feelings for Charles Grey. He can make her happy, she tells them. But the Duke’s not a dealmaking man—why should he be? The world bends to him. He could call Charles out and shoot him, if he wanted. Bess tries to calm him but he tells her to shut up and continues railing at G, asking if she intends to make him a laughingstock, a man who can’t sire a son and then ends up a cuckhold on top of it. He asks Georgiana point blank if she’s sleeping with Grey, and Georgiana tells him she’s not, but she doesn’t see why he’d care anyway, since he’s carrying on with Bess right in front of her.

He starts shouting, upsetting even the dogs, and Georgiana gets up and stalks off. The Duke pursues menacingly, and G picks up the pace, getting more and more nervous until she gets to the sanctuary of her room. It’s no sanctuary now, though. The Duke bursts in and tells her he only asked for two things when they were married: loyalty and a male heir. The same thing he asks of his dogs, Georgiana shouts. The Duke advances, and she pushes him away, telling him not to touch her, but he’s in no mood to be refused. He picks her up, despite her struggling, and carries her to the bed. Georgiana screams at him to get off and leave her alone, but it’s gone too far now. She begins to wail and scream as Bess appears outside her door. She listens in horror, much the same way Georgiana once listened outside Bess’s door, when, of all the awful things, little Charlotte comes running by. Bess immediately takes the child away, and Charlotte glances over her shoulder at G’s door, where the screaming continues. Silent footmen stationed throughout the cavernous house wince as Georgiana’s screams echo through the corridors.

G lays on her bed, staring at nothing, as the Duke sits nearby, looking grossed out at what’s just happened. He can’t just leave it, though, and tells her to give him a son already, and until she’s done that, to stay put and do as she’s told. Georgiana clenches one hand, digging her nails into her palm, just to feel something.

She tries to go back to normal, appearing on the stump with Charles Grey and Mr. Fox, but she’s clearly hurting and depressed, despite the crowd’s accolades. Charles notices, but before he can find out what’s wrong, she’s gone.

At yet another Devonshire House party, the perky music and laughter of the crowd are horribly at odds with the hollow, depressed, and drunken duchess who’s wandering towards the dance floor, wearing a large, fake-looking wig and more makeup than we’ve ever seen her in. Retreating behind a mask, clearly.

She stumbles onto the dance floor and stands there for a few moments, eyes closed, awkwardly swaying to the music. Bess watches her, concerned, and fortunately Fox rescues Georgiana by joining her on the dance floor and asking her if she’ll dance. Georgiana’s moving to the beat of her own drummer now and Fox can’t even begin to keep up. She starts spinning, and spins herself right into a table holding a chandelier, which goes crashing to the ground and brings the party to a screeching halt. She drunkenly smiles and moves away, not noticing that her wig has caught fire. Another guest helpfully points this fact out, and G starts to freak. The guests are useless, running around and waving their arms, until one of them grabs her and knocks the wig off. The Duke’s been taking all this in, and once the flaming wig is on the marble floor, he gravely asks a nearby footman to please put out her grace’s hair. The footman obligingly takes a giant bowl of punch and pours it over the wig. Party’s over.

Hmmm, my wife appears to be on fire. How…annoying.

Georgiana’s been put to bed and is with a doctor, who packs up his bag and reports to the Duke. She needs rest, and as long as she’s good and follows strict instructions there should be no trouble with the birth. Birth? Yes, that’s right. Under the worst possible circumstances imaginable, G’s pregnant again.

We cut to a churchtower, where two boys are ringing the bells merrily, and then to another church where the bells are ringing over the countryside as well, and then finally to an infant boy being wrapped in lacy blankets. G’s done it at last.

And she gets rewarded for it, too. G arrives in the Duke’s study , and his lawyer hands over the handsome check she was promised upon delivery of a male heir. Signed, sealed, and delivered indeed. There’s something so utterly creepy to me about a woman being paid to birth a boy. It’s kind of akin to some form of prostitution, right? Although, I guess if you look at it as her job to do so, this could be seen as a performance bonus. “Good work, Duchess, heirs are up 100% this quarter. Here’s your bonus, buy yourself something pretty, you deserve it!”

“Success at last,” G says hollowly before turning to go. The Duke calls after her and tells her that he, too, “abhors this whole thing.” But not enough to do anything about it, apparently.

G, the baby, and the girls are out in the garden playing when she notices a rider approaching (they’re at Chatsworth, the Duke’s country estate, by the way). The rider, of course, is Charles Grey, and Georgiana meets him on the terrace. They clearly haven’t seen each other in a while—he’s been in France, and they make a little small talk about the impending revolution. G asks what he’s doing there, and he says he got an invitation and figured it was on behalf of the Whig party, so of course he couldn’t refuse. And G’s presence, I’m sure, had nothing to do with his acceptance either, I’m sure.

Georgiana tells him she had a son, which he knows, as I’m sure everyone does. The baby’s called Hart, after his courtesy title, Marquess of Hartington. The Duke has conveniently gone up to London to celebrate the birth. G tells Charles that he’s been missed—much missed. She’s still so sad it’s heartbreaking.

That evening, the houseguests (there are quite a lot of them) are gambling. Georgiana doesn’t appear to be doing so well, which was par for the course for her. It might be because she’s busy checking out Charles, and he her, throughout the game. Bess notes this, and when Georgiana leaves to go to bed, Bess follows her out and tells her rather obliquely that no one must know. Georgiana realizes that Bess was the one who invited Grey to Chatsworth. Bess just tells her goodnight and returns to the gambling.

Later, Charles is sitting contemplatively in his room when Georgiana enters. The music swells as they embrace and start to undress each other in the sexy candlelight. They make it over to the bed and make love passionately. And thus, Georgiana learned that sex really can be fun.

Back in London, G, Bess, and the Duke are having lunch, and G breaks the news that she’s thinking of hitting Bath for a while, since Bess is there to take care of “their” husband while G takes the cure. Bess catches the snap and runs, backing her all the way, so the Duke cluelessly agrees.

In Bath, G and Grey are cutely cuddled up in bed, reading the gossip rags’ reports on G. They’re sweet and playful together, like newlyweds, so you know it can’t last. Sadly.

And, of course, it doesn’t. Charles heads out for the day, and G emerges from her room to find a particularly dreaded duo—her mother and her husband—waiting for her in a sitting room. She recovers admirably from her shock and manages to greet them, asking her mother what brings her to Bath. Lady Spencer gives her a look like, I think you know what’s going on here, my dear.

The Duke asks her if she’s seen many of their friends in Bath, and G pastes on a smile and tells him yeah, a few, reeling off some names. The Duke gets to the point and asks if Grey is there, and G knows the jig is up and just tells everyone she’s not about to give him up. It’s only fair, after all, since everyone has a lover—just look at Bess and the Duke! The Duke tells her that the problem is not her infidelity but her lack of discretion. Plus, the fact that Charles Grey is unmarried and has no wealth or rank, which isn’t entirely true. He was the son of an earl, although is father hadn’t inherited the title at the time. Anyway, the problem is, G’s risking a lot by being with Grey, whereas Grey’s risking nothing.

G protests that Charles at least loves her, and Lady Spencer tells her the Duke does too, which is quite the claim, considering all she knows. The Duke seconds this, and Georgiana gives him an awesome ‘you have got to be kidding me’ look. Lady Spencer approaches her daughter and tells her she’s about to make a scandal, which Georgiana’s just fine with, because then the Duke can divorce her and Bess can be duchess and everyone will live happily ever after. Well, that last part’s never going to happen, if Lady Spencer has anything to say about it. Georgiana looks cowed as her mother leaves.

G angrily asks the Duke what comes next—another rape? The Duke asks why he should do such a thing. Showing quite a bit more perception than he has thus far, the Duke tells her he knows she’s never thought much of him, but he knows that she and Grey are doomed. They’re both dreamers, and at some point, dreamers need to wake up, and face reality. Georgiana’s reality? A bleak future, if she doesn’t play ball. The Duke threatens to make sure nobody supports Grey financially or politically if he and Georgiana don’t give each other up. His career would be over. Oh, and he’ll take away G’s kids too. That one hits home. G bursts into tears and runs back to her room, ignoring her mother along the way. Alone in the sitting room, the Duke closes his eyes for a moment, looking guilty for how harsh he’s being. He sits down to wait for his wife to show herself again, and when she does, she tells him to go back to London without her. Her mind’s made up. So, he pulls his trump card and hands over letters from the children. This will be the mistake of your life, he warns her. No, says Georgiana. I made that many years ago. Lady Spencer takes a moment to stare disapprovingly at her daughter for a moment before leaving with the Duke.

Georgiana sits in her room in the gathering twilight, deep in thought. She finally goes to open the children’s letters, which apparently work their magic, as anyone knew they would (It’s too far to fall now…). She’s next seen flying through the door at Devonshire House and embracing her little girls tightly. The Duke walks in on this scene and gently sends the children away before helping Georgiana to her feet and woodenly thanking her for returning.

At the awkward threesome dining table, Georgiana is just digging into her dinner when she hears Charles Gray bellowing for her from foyer.

“Excuse me,” she says hollowly, walking out of the room. Charles is struggling with four footmen, who are restraining him, when Georgiana sails into the foyer, coolly dismissing the footmen. Gray tells her he’s written dozens of times and asks her what the hell happened? Dude, what do you think happened? You know how things worked, you had to know she’d lose her kids and you’d be screwed if you stayed together. But, apparently, Charles hasn’t considered that, he just thinks G’s not in love with him anymore. She tells him that’s not the case, so he says great, that means they can be together again! They can get married and have kids and live in this wonderful fairytale world together and it’ll be just great.

G has evidently taken the Duke’s words to heart—she’s no dreamer anymore. She sadly tells Charles that she can’t abandon her children, and he finally seems to get it. She turns and leaves him standing there, speechless.

“Really? After this I’ll be in a movie with James Bond and Mr. Darcy singing and dancing?”

G returns to the dining room, where Bess and the Duke have continued their meal. Well, the Duke has, at least. Bess is looking sympathetically at G, who resumes her seat and drops a bomb: she’s pregnant with Charles Grey’s child.

Presumably after taking a day or two to absorb this, the Duke tells Bess to pass along his plan: Georgiana will leave the country quietly and go abroad to give birth. The child will then be handed over to Charles Grey’s family. The Duke is standing in the room the whole time as Bess passes this info along to a hollow-eyed Georgiana. The Duke goes to leave, ordering Bess to accompany him, but Bess actually does care about Georgiana and tells the Duke that she’s going to go abroad with Georgiana, if G will have her, and there’s not a damn thing he can do to stop them. The Duke is amazed by this little rebellion, but like she said, there’s nothing he can do.

Georgiana and Bess arrive at a small house in the middle of nowhere, where Georgiana gives birth to a girl. Shortly after the child’s birth, she and Bess climb into a carriage and meet up with a nursemaid and an older, distinguished-looking gentleman by a marsh somewhere. He introduces himself as General Grey, a relative of Charles’s (I’m guessing it’s his father). Georgiana—who’s looking totally wrecked, by the way—tenderly kisses the baby and hands her over to the nursemaid. Bess’s face crumples sadly in sympathy as she watches. It’s even rougher when you know that Bess had two children with the Duke–a son and a daughter–whom she raised at Devonshire House and never had to give up. Georgiana gets no such privileges.

G starts to lose it as the baby is taken away, and she just manages to tell General Grey that the baby’s name is Eliza. He nods and returns to his carriage as G starts to completely fall to pieces. Bess runs over to her and holds her as she sobs and struggles heartbreakingly, hearing the baby she conceived with the man she loved cry for the last time.

Back home in England, she sits slumped on a sofa in a sitting room, where the Duke finds her. As he enters the room, she straightens up properly—she’s trained to the very end. He regards her for a few moments, and then there’s an amusing and actually rather endearing bit where he tries to figure out where he should sit before finally settling down on the sofa beside her.

“I’m not particularly adept at expressing myself when it comes to matters of a more…personal nature,” he understates before going on to apologize for how he’s behaved over the years. He wants their lives to even out, and for them to find some sort of common ground, so they can get along and live peacefully. He means it, too. It seems that this is a man who’s had quite a bit of time to think things over, and he’s actually used that time to be somewhat introspective. Good for him, I say.

Of course, then he has to kind of ruin it by telling her that Lady Melbourne has arranged a party to celebrate G’s return to London, and he thinks it’d be a good idea for them to go, as a show of unity. G looks right at him and asks who will be there, and his face is all sympathy as he gently tells her:

“Everybody.” G turns away and acquiesces. The Duke reaches over and takes her hand, an uncommonly tender gesture for him, and Georgiana acknowledges it. He then makes his way over to the window and looks out, watching their children play out in the garden much as he once watched Georgiana, all those years ago, at Althorpe. “How wonderful to be that free,” he muses. He turns back to Georgiana, smiles gently at her, and leaves her to her thoughts.

Georgiana, the Duke, and Bess arrive at the party, and Georgiana’s put on her happy face again. She fondly greets Fox, Sheridan, and her other friends before spotting Charles Grey at the other side of the room. She can’t resist—she makes her way over to him and greets him politely, as if they’re merely friendly acquaintances. He plays along, and asks about her recent European tour and welcomes her back. G asks if he has any news, and he informs her he’s about to get engaged to Lady Ponsonby. G takes this news pretty well, considering. Grey follows this up with the news that he also has a new niece, Eliza, who’s very much loved. They exchange meaningful looks, and the conversation ends. She leaves him and rejoins Bess and the Duke as the subtitles inform us that Georgiana reentered society and continued to be one of the most influential women of her time. Charles Grey became Prime Minister (and lent his name to a famous tea—yes, he’s that Earl Grey). G, Bess, and the Duke lived together until G’s death.

We rejoin G and Bess in the garden at Devonshire house, where G takes Bess’s hand and smiles happily for the first time in ages. The subtitles tell us that after G’s death, and with her blessing, Bess married the duke and became the Duchess of Devonshire. I’ll bet that pissed off Lady Spencer. The two women smile at one another, then join the kids in their play, happy and carefree. We’re left with two final bits of information: G visited Eliza often in secret, and Eliza named her daughter Georgiana. They don’t mention that Charles Grey also named one of his daughters Georgiana.

I missed this movie in theaters, but it’s been my understanding it got fairly mixed reviews. Reviewers accused it of being slow—and yes, it kind of is, but what do you expect? It’s the story of a person’s life, not a Michael Bay movie. Things aren’t going to blow up here, it’s thoughtful. And pretty well acted, I think. This is one of those times I liked Keira Knightley (I’ll admit, I tend to go back and forth on her, depending on the movie I see her in) and I really have to hand it to Ralph Fiennes. There really isn’t much to work with in the character of the Duke, and in less skilled hands he probably would have just come off as a bland asshole who suddenly decides to rape his wife. But Fiennes, to me, managed to convey the sense that the Duke was a man of his class and time—a bored do-nothing whose only job was to have a son. He paid his wife’s debts, kept her well housed and clothed, let her do what she wanted, and that’s what he expected in return. Those were the times, sadly. And it’s not that he felt nothing, he just didn’t understand Georgiana and couldn’t really keep up with her, intellectually or socially. They were just, as G says at one point, a bad match.

Another complaint I remember hearing was that the film makes it clear that Georgiana was a famous and influential woman, but we have no idea why that might be. I can see the reviewer’s point, but I think they’ve missed something. It’s often difficult, if not impossible, to explain why a certain person captures the public’s interest and adoration, beyond them being rich and possibly good looking. I mean, why the hell are people so enamored of Snooki? Why was Paris Hilton ever a big deal? These people have done NOTHING, but their every move is/was followed and obsessed over. I think it was kind of the same thing here. Georgiana was rich, titled, powerful (she was very good friends with the Prince of Wales, later George IV, along with the politicians featured in the movie). She influenced fashion and put herself in the public eye. She was entertaining, and people obsessed over her. Even in the book this film is based on, it’s not entirely clear why G was so famous.

You can contemplate all these things while you watch the movie, or you can turn your brain off and just enjoy it for the pretty spectacle it is. And it is quite pretty. The interiors are sumptuous, and the costumes unsurprisingly grabbed pretty much every major award handed out the year the film was released. Plus, we learn that everyone, even Dominic Cooper, can look sexy in candlelight.

4 thoughts on “The Duchess: Politics and Love Make Bad Bedfellows

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