The Duchess strikes me as the anti-thesis to the historical drama. Inevitably focused on the male perspective of history, women are objectified and marginalized for the sake of the male story. I don’t want more female action stars, like Lara Croft, which is rarely anything more than male wish fulfillment, but rather an appreciation for both the struggles and lives of women. The Duchess is a beautiful example of a film that subverts the norm, creating in Duchess of Devonshire a character who is admired and held up for her behaviour as an equal human being.
Through the trials of her character, we are given a very sincere image of a time of great inequality and hypocrisy. Women are allowed even less freedom than slaves, as one politician attempts to stop the trade slaving, without even considering that a woman should even be allowed to vote. That particular comparison seems harsh, as slavery is a “worse” crime than the inability to vote, but the servitude a wife must undergo for her husband is no different than that of a slave for a master. Even the logic remains the same, as once racist slave owners would insist that it was for the better of these people because they were not as bright and unable to fend for themselves, to have someone to take care of them, do the husbands and men justify their treatment of women. In a very early scene, the Duke of Devonshire observes that women’s clothing is far too complex, and with a surprising answer the Duchess replies it’s their sole means of expression.
The film embraces what many would criticize as shallow endeavours and passions, exploring and revealing the true nuance and meaning they held in the lives of women in particular. It is a film that never for a moment undermines the ambitions or condemns its characters for some morally ambiguous actions. The film perhaps lacks in technical artistry, but certainly makes up for it in its strong script and powerful characterizations.