Great British Heritage Films: The Duchess (2008)

As the last in my series of British heritage film articles – introduced in‘British Heritage Films: Portrayal of Nationality and...

Dene Walker

Contributor

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As the last in my series of British heritage film articles – introduced in‘British Heritage Films: Portrayal of Nationality and Modernity‘ I will analysise 2008 film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as the Duchess of Devonshire. As with my previous works in this series, I will be reviewing how the film engages, and disengages with modernity and also how it depicts British ‘historicity’ and nationality.

Higson’s (2006) description of the heritage ‘industry’, and how the heritage film represents a national past, is particularly useful when taking The Duchess into consideration. The film is an example of those which turned ‘their backs on the industrialised, chaotic present [and] nostalgically reconstruct an imperialist and upper-class Britain’, (p93). However, it would be too simplistic to associate such films with one particular political ideology such as ‘Thatcherism’. Such films are considerably more ‘liberal-humanist’ than they are given credit for. Higson believes ‘it is this tension between visual splendour and narrative meaning in the films which make them so fascinating,’ (p93). The most crucial way in which this applies to The Duchess is in Georgiana’s restrictive duties as a prominent woman of her day.

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Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, is a character defined primarily by her markedly liberal values, especially regarding the concepts of political freedom and female empowerment. This gives the film a certain modern dimension, as it depicts ‘the conflict between old and new, tradition and modernity’, (p95), as expressed by Connor and Harvey (1991). In their view, the fundamental concept of ‘heritage’ as a genre is the fusion between continuity of traditional values and the allowance for ‘change and innovation’, otherwise known as ‘enterprise’. This has become an integral feature of the contemporary cinema known as ‘the heritage industry’, which in and of itself has become an economic enterprise. In this way, ‘the heritage industry [has] transformed the past into a series of commodities for the leisure and entertainment market’ (p95). Jameson further expands on this commentary in his description of ‘the heritage film’ as ‘a vast collection of images’ (1984, p95). He believes that the past is meticulously styled in a way which disjoints actual history from the narrative. It is his view that ‘the past is reproduced as flat, depthless pastiche, where the reference point is not the past itself’ (p95).

The representation of the past in such films has become so commonplace that its departure from historical detail is rarely scrutinised, but rather ‘the self-conscious visual perfectionism of these film and their fetishisation of period details create a fascinating but self-enclosed world’ (p96). Craig (1991) announces this as a type of conspicuous consumption in film form. The images consumed present a fantasy of the national past of England / Britain.

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Furthermore, Higson’s description of the common formula of heritage film is particularly relevant to The Duchess, being that it is largely male-centred, depicts the aristocracy, takes place in a setting beyond the urbanisation of industrial England / Britain, and relies heavily on the natural beauty of the countryside. The City of Bath, in south-west England, is referenced and featured several times throughout The Duchess as a setting of high social importance for the aristocracy. The city’s famed Georgian Royal Crescent is displayed as a given example of English / British respectability and grandeur. It is used very deliberately, owing to its status as a national historical landmark which has remained virtually unchanged since its construction between 1767 and 1774. It is also a powerful symbol of 18th-century England / Britain, having been built during the time in which The Duchess is set.

The Duchess’s engagement with feminist ideologies is another example of the film’s interaction with modernity. Georgiana, much like Elizabeth, begins her journey as an optimistic and contented young woman, naively in the pursuit of Hollywood-like romance. Georgiana conveys this especially when she questions her mother as to whether her betrothed, William, the Duke of Devonshire, loves her already in spite of the fact that they have met only twice before. Her mother’s dismissive response foreshadows the supposed unimportance of such matters in Georgiana’s life, as she becomes increasingly pressured, emotionally and physically to produce a male heir. The marriage begins as an almost business-like agreement, and deteriorates into a battle of wills between a politically and socially superior man, and his strong-willed, yet socially impotent wife.

 

Sources

Corner, J. Harvey, S. 1991. Enterprise and Heritage: Crosscurrents of National Culture. Routledge. London and New York.

Higson, A. 2003. English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume drama since 1980 (Chapter 6: Elizabeth). Oxford University Press.

Higson. A. 2006. Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film: In: L. D. Ed. Fire were Started: British cinema and Thatcherism. 2nd ed. London. Wallflower Press. P91 – 109.