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The Duchess

A fine period costume drama, with take-home lessons

Right now, some of our politicians -- no, all of them -- are doing something they know they shouldn't be doing.

Some of these things are sexual, about which we shouldn't care but do, and some are political, about which we seem not to care but should.

So I wonder: How would Charles Grey, prime minister of England from 1830-34, feel if he knew that we knew he fathered his first child out of wedlock with Georgiana, the duchess of Devonshire, a society belle who was forced by her powerful husband to give the child up to Grey's family?

If we're to believe The Duchess -- and I do -- that's what happened in late 18th-century England, long before Grey (Dominic Cooper) became PM and abolished slavery in his country's flagging empire. And if, as The Duchess posits, he had pursued his love for Georgiana, the cuckolded Duke (Ralph Fiennes) would have disgraced him, and he would never have achieved his destiny.

The Duchess is not about Grey, although it's apropos that I've begun with him: This is a movie about an ur-feminist forced to subjugate her mind and desires to the oligarchy of men who dominated her culture. We've seen that theme done before, but rarely so entertainingly, and by a cast of disciplined actors who dissolve into their historic personae.

The Duchess has a lot of story to tell, and toward the end, it begins to bog down in the inevitable. But the first hour is crisp with intelligence and dramatic tension. To see contemporary actors like Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling (as Georgiana's mother) perform so convincingly in classical style turns masterpiece theater into living history.

There are certainly villains here, but The Duchess, directed by Saul Dibb, and co-written by the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty), makes it clear that they're not pure evil. "I abhor this whole thing," the taciturn Duke (Fiennes) tells Georgiana (Keira Knightley) after he rapes her to produce a male heir. Despite his transgression, he means what he says -- he's a Whig, a progressive -- but he's too human to swim against the insurmountable tide.

The abuse of women is even more shocking here because it's so commonplace and casual: A man can beat his wife if the stick is no thicker than his thumb, and when the Duke asks Georgiana not to feel threatened by his illegitimate child, he reassures her, "It's only a daughter." (She then goes on to produce two of her own, and her stock plummets.)

We could take a few lessons of our own about whose rights we're denying today, and who will make movies about it a century from now to shame us. And yet, Georgiana is often quite vibrant -- generous to other women (kindred spirits) and hopeful to the bittersweet end. Her life means something again, with her fight for equal rights well along its way, and other fights waiting to take its place in the headlines.


Starts Fri., Oct. 10

The Duchess
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By Mars Johnson