Set at the end of the eighteenth century, The Duchess is the story of the beautiful and, glamorous Georgiana Spencer, the most fascinating woman of the age.
While her beauty and charisma made her name, her extravagant tastes and appetite for gambling and love made her infamous. Married young to the older, distant Duke of Devonshire, intimate of ministers and princes, Georgiana became a fashion icon, a doting mother, a shrewd political operator and darling of the common people. But at the core of her story is a desperate search for love.
From Georgiana's passionate and doomed affair with Earl Grey to the complex ménage à trois with her husband and her best friend, Lady Bess Foster, The Duchess is a very contemporary tale of fame, notoriety and the search for love.
The Duchess stars Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) as The Duchess; Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List, The Constant Gardener) as her husband The Duke; Hayley Atwell (The Line of Beauty, Brideshead Revisited) as her best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster; and Dominic Cooper (The History Boys, Mamma Mia) as her lover, Charles Grey.
The film is directed by Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy, The Line of Beauty) and produced by Michael Kuhn for Qwerty Films and Gabrielle Tana for Magnolia Mae Productions. The film is from a script by Jeffery Hatcher (Casanova, Stage Beauty) based on the best selling historical biography, "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" by Amanda Foreman.
The Duchess is a Qwerty Films/Magnolia Mae Production in association with Pathé Renn Production and BIM Distribuzione for Pathé, BBC Films and Paramount Vantage.
Georgiana Spencer was born at Althorp in 1757. At the age of 17 she became the Duchess of Devonshire and mistress of Chatsworth House. The Duke's wealth and power brought her to the attention of the public and she became the queen of fashionable society, alternately fawned on and caricatured by the press and providing the inspiration for Lady Teazle in Sheridan's "The School for Scandal." Allying herself to the politician Charles James Fox she became an important figure in the Whig party, canvassing for their cause in the election of 1784. Her public success concealed a personal life that was fraught with suffering and a sterile marriage. The Duke of Devonshire was notoriously indifferent to his wife's charm and preferred her best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster, who inveigled her way into his bed and his heart. Georgiana embarked on a passionate love affair with Charles Grey, and when she became pregnant by him was sent into exile by the Duke. On her return she continued to live with the Duke and Bess Foster for many years in a ménage a trois.
The Duchess is based on the biography of Georgiana, written by Amanda Foreman, which won the Whitbread prize for Best Biography in 1997 and stayed on the best-seller lists for months. Producer Gaby Tana snapped up the rights of the book soon after its publication in 1998. "I knew Amanda for quite a long time before she wrote the book and when I read it I found it totally fascinating and thought it was great material for a film. I was in a privileged position because she was a friend and that helped because there was a lot of other interest. Amanda liked the vision that I had for the project and has been a great sounding board along the way because she knows these characters so well. When you talk to her about these characters it is like she's channelling them right there before you."
Tana was very taken with Georgiana. "The character of The Duchess is extraordinary and inspiring. Even though on the surface she seemed to have everything, you realise that this was not really the case. With her privileges came a lot of burden and things were never quite what they appeared to be. She was original and very smart. In a way she was a precursor of the liberated woman -becoming very involved in social change and in politics. But alongside this, there was this decadent, compulsive gambler who lost millions and millions of pounds. She was filled with contradictions and I think that makes for an interesting story. Her internal struggles make Georgiana a very interesting and surprising character."
Foreman's book covered the whole of Georgiana's life, Tana, however, was not interested in making a biopic. "It was a fabulous biography, but we weren't interested in making her life story. We were interested in making a film that had a real story line. We ended up focusing on the marriage and a particular period of the marriage. Although set in the 18th Century the contemporary parallels are extraordinary, and it really is timeless. It's a story that resonates as much today as then. It's surprising, you realise people have been having the same sorts of problems forever. This is where we found much of the appeal and is why we believe people will enjoy it today".
Foreman, who acted as a consultant on the film, was happy to relinquish control.
"One of the things that producers are always frightened about is that the writer will be angry when they see that their book is not represented word for word, page for page in the film. Actually that rarely happens and most writers know that what they're watching is the dramatic truth. The book is about a literary journey and the film is about an experience of an emotional journey. What they have ended up producing is very true and faithful to the book and to Georgiana's life."
Producers Gaby Tana of Magnolia Mae and Michael Kuhn of Qwerty brought Saul Dibb on board to direct the film. Gaby Tana says of Dibb. "He came to see us and said all the right things. He had the same approach to the film as we did, which was to make a period film with contemporary resonance. He had a lot of input into the script and continuously proved himself to be right for the job."
Saul Dibb saw some parallels between the story and his acclaimed feature debut, Bullet Boy. "They are both tragedies, for want of a better description, which deal with young people at a crucial moment in their lives who are trying to break free from controlling social forces. When I was sent the script I wasn't looking to make a period film, the British period film that I grew up watching isn't necessarily my favourite genre, but this felt new and different. It was a complex and dark story about a woman trapped in an arranged marriage. It was emotionally powerful and not just a nostalgic view of English life--a trap which I feel a lot of period films fall into."
Dibb was interested in paring back the setting and getting as close to the emotional heart of the story as possible. "I wanted to make this film purely from Georgiana's point of view, to focus really tightly on her story and her journey, to allow us to put ourselves in her shoes and explore that situation. I wanted to make something intimate. Coming from documentaries and Bullet Boy I was interested in making this unreal world as real as possible and tried to strip away all those layers that could distance the viewer, from the characters' lives--be it the language, the settings, the costumes or the make-up--and just try to portray the real people in these complex relationships."
The producers tell of their luck in securing Keira Knightley. Gaby Tana explains how fortuitous it was. "A little bird told me that she was looking for a movie to do at that time, it is very rare that that happens, so we jumped on it right away. It was all about timing, we were really fortunate that she was there at that moment in time and that this spoke to her. I've heard through the grapevine that she was reading the book on the set of the movie that she was finishing, it captured her imagination and she was perfect for it. "
The combination of the script, the role and the book had grabbed Knightley's attention. "The script was really interesting and had a very strong female role, so when you get offered something like this you certainly don't turn it down. I've done films based on books before, but never one based on a biography. I felt the character in the script and the character in the book were quite different from each other. The book is really extraordinary and there is so much in it, you could make so many films out of it. The script was quite cleverly done to keep to a very specific story line: the story of a doomed marriage. I think any actress would relish playing Georgiana, she's an extraordinary character with a real lust for life."
For Saul Dibb casting was vitally important. "Finding people who would be able to embody the characters is the biggest challenge of any film. We were very ambitious. It was absolutely necessary for us to find two people who naturally had the strange kind of chemistry that the real Duke and Duchess had. When Keira and Ralph first appeared together for the screen test, they completely embodied the parts and I got a little tingle of excitement. They are absolutely a strange couple and that's the idea of the film."
Dibb enthuses about his leading lady. "I think Keira embodies naturally quite a lot of Georgiana's characteristics. She's incredibly bright, she's beautiful, and she's a celebrity. There's a kind of vulnerability to her, but also an open and passionate side. She's well read and she understands Georgiana's ideas and arguments. It's quite hard to find, someone who's got all those things rolled into one. It's a challenge to ask people to engage with a very wealthy, beautiful young woman from the English upper class of 200 years ago. That was the main challenge of the film. How do you make an audience forget their preconceptions of what life was like in the past and encourage them to identify with a life that is so hugely different from their own and empathise with the problems that a person like Georgiana would have faced. I think that Keira totally achieves this."
Knightley was impressed by Dibb's talent and persuasiveness. "I saw Bullet Boy and I thought it was beautifully acted and beautifully made and I was just very, very impressed with that. I thought it was interesting to take this guy who has done a very contemporary, south London story about gun culture and chose him to direct this piece. Actually the truth is I read the script, met him, liked him a lot and then he sent me three huge white ostrich feathers. I thought "come on" a man who sends you ostrich feathers with a gold ribbon around them is worth working with!"
Cast opposite Knightley was Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Devonshire. The producers were persistent in persuading him to take the role, as Tana explains. "He just was the Duke. I don't think he was looking to do another period drama and he took more convincing than anybody else. But we were determined and would not take no for an answer."
Dibb explains how important it was to Fiennes that the Duke becomes a rounded character. "On the page the Duke could very easily have become a two-dimensional character. He could have become a cartoon villain of repressed aristocratic male Englishness and when I sent the script to Ralph that was his big worry. I think he thought the script was well written and there were great possibilities with the character. He wanted to know that there would be the freedom to try and understand him and who he was beyond this sometimes horrible, enigmatic figure. That's how I knew he was absolutely the right person for the role. He avoided going for the obvious in every scene and every choice he made was about making the character and performance more subtle or more layered."
Fiennes explains how he saw the Duke as a complex character bound by the codes of behaviour of his time. "I am a bit wary of period costume dramas, but I liked this and thought it was a good story. I liked the character of the Duke a lot, but thought the character could be made a bit more complicated in the interpretation. As written he's emotionally constipated, rather cold, unemotional and quite cruel, but he's a man of his time. There were certain values that he holds to and we have to understand those values and not pre-judge them."
Speaking of the Duke's relationship with The Duchess Fiennes says, "She's the open-eyed young woman who is emotionally available and marries this man in a kind of arranged marriage. The Duke probably does feel for her deep down, but he's holding on to a code of behaviour and belief that he sees as important. To 21st Century eyes he could be seen as slightly hypocritical and it would be very easy to box him in and label him. I tried to understand him through the values of his own time."
The co-stars worked closely together to bring out the complexities of the on-screen relationship. "Neither of us wanted it to be obvious from the beginning that this marriage is not going to work." Says Knightley. "I think if it's a foregone conclusion that the Duke's the baddy and Georgiana is the goody, then it's never going to be that interesting a story and I think it's more the case of two personalities that just don't go together and don't understand each other. Georgiana can be a complete nightmare. The Duke doesn't know how to cope with her and this creates an interesting dynamic within this relationship of two people that just don't fit."
Fiennes was very taken with the young actress. "I had just seen Atonement, which I loved and I think Keira's got an amazing quality. I'm very impressed by her spirit and how present she is and her dedication and her discipline. She combines a sweet nature as a person with a focus and discipline and a wonderful emotional range. She's got that rare thing where it seems she is doing nothing, but thoughts are flooding through her face, through her eyes. I think she's a pleasure to work with."
Dibb explains his ideas behind casting the other key characters. "For the Duchess, the Duke and Lady Spencer we wanted three iconic actors, as they represent iconic people of their time. It seemed to work to have people who already had a stature and prominence playing those parts. Charlotte Rampling has an impressive and slightly unsettling presence on screen and I also thought she looked very much like Keira--that they had a very similar kind of poise and stature. For Bess and Grey we wanted to have actors who are up and coming. We didn't want them to be people that you recognise necessarily. I'd worked with Hayley before on "The Line of Beauty" and I'd always felt that she was perfect for Bess. She's a great actress. Her quality is that you're not always sure what's going on behind her eyes and with Bess you want to feel you're not always sure what her plan is. She's got a plan, but you don't want it to be obvious. Hayley is someone who's got these qualities. She's very attractive and she's got a devilish charm that people warm to."
Atwell says, "I loved the script and I was moved by the story, all the more so because it was true. Bess is someone who could so easily be seen solely as devious and calculating, but I found a book called "Elizabeth and Georgiana" about Bess's life, her personal life, and it was a lot more heartfelt. Bess was a very complicated and troubled woman who was trying to survive in society. All she wanted was to have her children back. She was a woman who would do anything for her children and I thought that was wonderful."
Amanda Foreman was on hand to advise the actors. "My involvement in the film was two-fold. Firstly I was on hand in case any of the actors wanted to know what their character's childhood was like, or what their emotions would have been on a certain day. My other role was to give some 18th Century advice: how they would have walked, how would they have talked. This group of actors was so accomplished they didn't really need any help, but I was happy to be a sounding board and they were happy to use me."
Saul Dibb was impressed with the lengths his actors went to familiarise themselves with the period and the characters. "Keira was willing to put a lot of herself and her thoughts and her time into trying to understand this woman and trying to embody her whole story.
She's very hard working and did a lot of research. She read Amanda Foreman's book several times, but she also went out and read lots of other books, that she found for herself. Ralph did exactly the same. You would go in his trailer and there would only be pictures of 18th Century dukes on the wall and he'd only be listening to music from the period. Those kinds of things really help an actor to try and understand what it was like to live then."
Knightley went to look through some of the archive of Georgiana's belongings held at Chatsworth. "I was very fortunate. When we were filming at Chatsworth, the present Duchess of Devonshire showed me some of the letters, jewellery and paintings and all the notes from her creditors that showed how much debt she was in. When she died she had been terrified of disclosing to her husband the amount of she owed, because she was convinced he was going to divorce her or send her away and actually when she died he found out how much she was in debt and said is that all. There's something incredibly sad about her, I think that she's a victim of herself, of her own innocence. She's a victim of people using her for their own gain, but what is rather wonderful about this story is she finds a way to live with this. She finds a way to triumph over something and to regain some power in a time when women really had very little."
Fiennes read around the subject in order to uncover the Duke. "I've read the Amanda Foreman book which is fantastic, but in it the Duke remains enigmatic. I found another couple of books about him and Bess Foster and I managed to find out a bit more about him. He was very contained and never very expressive or demonstrative socially, but people who knew him said he was incredibly informed and incredibly knowledgeable. If ever there was debate in a men's club his opinion was always considered the final word."
Georgiana, was Diana Spencer's great-great-great-great aunt and at times their stories' bear uncanny parallels. Gaby Tana comments, "The parallels are there and they are real, especially in the way they both manipulated the press. I think Georgiana really understood how to make things work for her and then of course used it for political means. Georgiana was probably first celebrity--in the way that we perceive celebrity today. When she appeared in the papers they sold out, she was followed around by cartoonists--the equivalent of the paparazzi. She was a fashion icon and she captured people's imagination."
Amanda Foreman adds, "Georgiana was a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lady Diana. She's a star, she's a celebrity but she's also an immensely tragic figure, incredibly shy inside, but desperately seeking attention. Very intelligent and very talented in her own right. What's relevant to Georgiana's story is the idea of a woman who is desperately seeking to define herself when all the men around her, especially in the press, are trying to define her in ways that she doesn't recognize.
Both Princess Diana and Georgiana were intelligent, powerful women who were almost ripped to shreds by the press and then fought to remake themselves to finally be the women they wanted to be. One of the aspects of Georgiana's life that makes it so relevant today is that she had to live under the intense glare of public scrutiny. I see Keira playing Georgiana now and I'm amazed that she is able to keep her composure with the constant press attention she receives - this is something that Georgiana also had to suffer."
"We are trying not to tell the story of Diana through Georgiana," states Dibb, "but everyone's aware and it would be a bit naive if they didn't know that Diana is a direct descendent of Georgiana. Georgiana was born a Spencer, born in Althorp and there are parallels - she became a celebrity of her day, she married a man who was complicated and distant and she married him very young. After a while there were three people in the relationship, but it came about in a very, very different way and I think we're talking about very different people, so the parallels go up to an extent and then they stop. The parallels are in the staging posts in her life more than they are in her character. If people want to make comparisons, that's fine but there's no way that we were trying to tell the story or manipulate the story to chime in with what people knew of Diana's life."
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