The Duchess (2008)

(On TV, September 2017) Nowadays, it’s not particularly difficult to make feminist-themed historical movies. Being a woman has seldom been easy in recorded history, and it doesn’t take much highlighting to make the point that it was even worse not too long ago. So it is that The Duchess, even fancifully adapted from historical events, doesn’t have to reach in order to present a credibly oppressed heroine. The plot summary does read like a melodrama: An 18th-century young English woman stuck in an arranged marriage, pressured to produce a male heir, sidelined by her husband’s affair with her friend (herself pressured by having been taken away from her sons), embarking on an affair of her own … and so on. A nudge too far would have sent the film in X-rated territory, especially given how little consent there is all around. While the summary reads like a wild ride, it’s considerably dampened by a running time that feels too long even under two hours, considering the tepid pacing and highly mannered costume drama. At least there’s the acting to admire along the way: Kiera Knightley turns in a serious performance, while Ralph Fiennes has seldom been so detestable and Hayley Atwell distinguishes herself with a difficult character. The visual look of the film is as good as period dramas get, and the Oscar-nominated costumes are indeed pretty good. This being said, The Duchess does feel like an intensely familiar story—from The Other Boyleen Girl to Anna Karenina to Belle to a chunk of the Jane Austen adaptations, there is a lot of similar material out there and if it happens to scratch an itch, then hurrah. Otherwise, it’s a long film with familiar plot points, reasonably entertaining but not essential.

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