This was going, for a while, to be an angry post about the inability of male reviewers to notice lesbian relationships in movies unless they have a big sign on them that says LOOK!!!! LESBIANS!!!!
Then I read this far from imbecilic piece which also fails to notice this rather key aspect of The Duchess. To summarize, Georgiana is married off to the Duke of Devonshire who wants an heir, and is upset when she produces daughters. Lonely, she befriends Elizabeth, whose husband beats her and has denied her her children. The Duke arranges for Elizabeth to get her children back as the price of her favours - she becomes his live-in mistress and Georgiana and she quarrel. The Duke breaks up Georgiana's own affair with a young politician and makes her give up her child by his rival. Elizabeth and Georgiana are reconciled because Elizabeth gives her emotional support over this and when Georgiana dies at 48, the Duke marries Elizabeth.
This account - which is the version we get in various reviews - omits the crucial scene in which Elizabeth explains to Georgiana that women are supposed to enjoy sex, and provides extensive instruction in the fact. We are not told that they have sex on other occasions but in the last stages of the film they act as much like a couple as either of them does with the Duke their husband - in the last scene, they wear matching outfits, and run in a circle with their children. Both make ultimate sacrifices, including betraying love, for the sake of their children - the film is very good on the way that C18 husbands used the threat of separation to keep wives in order.
(Those of us who know constitutional history also know that the real reason why Georgiana has to give up her young lover rather than allow her husband to destroy his career is that he is Charles Grey, who many years later will bring about the Great Reform Act. One of the weaknesses of the script is that the historical Georgiana was someone whom that knowledge would have hugely consoled.)
The star of the film, alas!, is Fiennes as the emotionally constipated and brutally insensitive Duke - you do see, though, at moments, why these two women he treats with contempt and often incredible cruelty nonetheless dance to his tune. It is not just about misogyny and power, though it mostly is. The scene where Georgiana comes home to overhear her husband screwing her best friend on the other side of a door, is echoed by a later scene where an aghast Bess overhears her lover raping his wife. There is a moment early on when Georgiana tells Charles James Fox that his talk of progress is hypocritical - 'One cannot be moderately free any more than one can be moderately dead' - and she comes to know this ever more clearly.
Because this is a frock-porn film, Keira Knightley spends much of the film being a clothes-horse- in fairness, she does get to say early on that women, denied political expression, have only the elaborations of fashion as a mode of self-expression. I still think that she is pretty good in this - she does hurt and sulky and betrayed and periodically stinking drunk quite well, and in key scenes with Grey and Bess has a nice line in sensual abandon.
In the end, though, it just does amaze me that bisexual invisibility is so total that a film in which the two main female characters actually make love on screen is treated by everyone as a film that is solely and wholly about their relationship with the man they share.
And of course I should not be surprised. The other week, I saw a documentary about the castrati - castrated before puberty to produce incredibly powerful high voices that largely dominated the operatic stage and church music - in the course of which a doctor poohpoohed the idea that they could have been sexually active in spite of having no testicles. Most of the contemporary accounts mention that castrati were greatly prized as lovers, not only by men, but by women - but this doctor just went 'no erect penises, therefore no sexual gratification for either party'.
Lack of imagination is a terrible thing...
Later Oh, and does anyone know whether the relationship between Georgiana and Bess has these overtones in the Foreman biography the film is based on?
The film makes vague analogies between the Georgiana/William/Bess triangle and that between Diana (Georgiana's relative), Charles and Camilla, but they don't work all that well, and not just because of the sexual interaction of the two C18 women. Essentially, Georgiana was about five times as bright as Diana, and Charles considerably brighter than William.