DVD Review: The Duchess (Blu-ray)

The Duchess
Blu-ray Edition
Directed by Saul Dibb
Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Rampling, Hayley Atwell
Paramount Home Entertainment
Release Date: December 27, 2008

How wonderful would it be to be that free?

It is one of those quotes that can sum up an entire film and leave a lasting impression on you. It occurs when the Duke of Devonshire looking out his window of his estate finds children playing and laughing in his garden that is so well kept and groomed that the garden doesn’t even possess qualities of freedom. The wealth and power that certain people consume can’t give them freedom or happiness. Whether worrying about politics, wars, love affairs, or what to wear to an extravagant party, adult life, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, comes with shackles that can’t be undone. William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of England, of all people, wishes to wash his hands of all that surrounds him just so he can have what his power can’t buy: freedom.

The subplot involves talk of abolishing slavery and making citizens of England free, or somewhat free according to one politico, Mr. Fox. He discusses his thoughts at a dinner party at the Duke’s home. The Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana (Keira Knightley), injects her beliefs by indicating that one person can’t be partly free. A person is either free or not free according to Georgiana, who also believes strongly in revolutions. This is a woman before her time. Even though women at the time weren’t allowed to vote or state their opinions openly, she wasn’t going to let none of that burden her opinions on manly topics.

Georgiana Spencer is not free. Plucked from a garden of innocence because the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) wants nothing more than to have an heir to his throne; she’s condemned to a life of worthlessness. Even though she’s been labeled a trendsetter, whether it is with her gambling, partying, fashion statements or political statements, she seems to have it all except for true love. And that was even taken away from her twice by her husband who made it impossible for her to have a relationship with her good friend Bess (Haley Atwell), whom Georgiana took in because of Bess’ abusive husband, and her admirer Earl Grey (Dominic Cooper). There’s a beautiful and sensual scene showing Georgiana and Bess alone in Georgiana’s bedroom acting out a love scene. It strikes the right chord because Bess is pretending she is Earl while she instructs Georgiana to just sit back and close her eyes and try to imagine what real love feels like.

Marrying the Duke at the age of seventeen, because the Spencer’s are known to produce male heirs, with high approval by her mother, she bore three daughters when all the Duke wanted was a son. Essentially he becomes appalled by her, treating her like a hooker for hire. He even makes love to Bess, making her his mistress. Director Saul Dibb, relatively new, handles these scandalous activities with care. This is when Fiennes gets to showcase his talent. Recently he’s been playing the mad man who screams and shouts and shoots guns whenever something ticks him off. Here, as he restrains his anger to its fullest possibility, he is doing some of his best work as an actor. We fear his Duke whenever he’s eating, sleeping or playing with his dogs (whom he loves more than Georgiana). When an actor can convey constrained anger and iniquity without ever having to raise his voice, is something to behold. He’s a monster concealed behind royal clothing.

The Devonshire home in London is monstrous in size. What lies within are halls, corridors and rooms of vast space which contain the sense of past feelings that have gone numb with time. Strangely these settings contain a strong sense of intimacy; intimate in a sense that The Duchess truly cares for its characters.

Dibb, who stumbles a bit with the pacing of his film, fills this home with characters who hate their status in life. To suggest to the audience to care for both The Duke and The Duchess is unthinkable. But we do. Sympathizing in a strange way with The Duke, given his character’s morals, is a mark of great storytelling. While we almost feel obligated to sympathize with The Duchess, the way Knightley embodies her as a modern woman is spellbinding. The only time she has a spark in her eye is when she’s in the presence of her children. Her children are her freedom.

Blu-ray Features

High-Definition Quality: The Duchess is one of those movies that uses its setting as a character. A period piece that dwells in the acres of green grasses and befriends enormous castles and palaces, The Duchess‘ picture quality captures that and more as it brings us closely to the environment that the characters in the film are encountering. It merely transcends the so-called “chick flick” label with pictures that pop and a more eye opening experience to the environment of England in the 18th century. Not only does the scenery shine but also the costumes which are all decorated with elaborate cloth and bearings. My expectations for this particular Blu-Ray transfer were high and, by all means, it delivers, with staggering clarity, a picture that captures every minute detail that 18th century England has to offer. Except for a minor quibble about one particular scene this is a worthy transfer for a Blu-Ray aficionado.

Special Features:

How Far She Went – HD (23 min): An in depth look at the making of the film. The amount of time that was used to convey a well believed rendition of the time period.

Georgiana in her own words – HD (7 min): A look at the actual letters that the Duchess wrote herself at different stages of her life.

Costume Diary – HD (5 min): The lavish costumes that will undoubtedly have fashion fiends drooling are examined in this feature.

Two Theatrical Trailers – HD (4 min)

Movie- *** out of ****
High-Def Transfer- ***1/2 out of ****
Special Features- **1/2 out of ****

1 Comment »

  1. I need to watch this again. I liked it, but could not get into it as much as I wanted to for some reason.

    Great review!

    Comment by Jerry — February 2, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

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