I find it surprising that no one has thought to compare these two movies before. Both are period dramas starring Keira Knightley retelling the lives of two aristocratic women. Both films were excellent is providing strong, multidimensional female leads, one who finds wisdom after being broken and one who falls from grace and succumbs to madness.
The Duchess is the adaption of Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana Cavendish, the 6th Duchess of Devonshire. Born Lady Georgiana Spencer, she was the great-great-great-great-aunt to the late Princess Diana. She married the duke of Devonshire on her 17th birthday. The duke was an emotionally stunted man who was only concerned with having a son, something Georgiana did not provide him until many years into their marriage. She eventually has an affair with the uprising politician Charles Grey until she is forced to break it off when the duke threatens to take her children away. She is also forced to relinquish her illegitimate daughter to the Grey family and lives the rest of her life as the Duchess of Devonshire.
Anna Karenina is the adaptation of the 1873 novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, one of my favorite classics of all time. Anna is the dutiful wife of a high-ranking imperial official who is swept into a passionate love affair by the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky. Ultimately the affair is discovered and Anna attempts to live her life as Vronsky’s mistress, only to find that all of society has ostracized her. That combined with her increasing erratic jealousy plunges her into insanity until she commits suicide by stepping in front of a train.
Between the two women, Georgiana is the character that inspires the most sympathy. Her husband had already had his own string of affairs before Georgiana has hers with Charles Grey and it is clear that the duke is not genuinely hurt by her actions, only concerned with his reputation. Anna, on the other hand, has her affair with Vronsky when her husband, albeit not overtly affectionate, was still emotionally devoted to her. Georgiana is also the opposite of Anna where she was willing to sacrifice her personal happiness with Grey to remain in her children’s lives, whereas Anna was prepared to leave her son to be with Vronsky.
In the beginning I had sympathy for Anna. Though her husband was not cruel, they did marry out of convenience, thus Count Vronsky could possibly be considered Anna’s first “real” love. My sympathy for Anna came to an end, however, after she decided to return to Vronsky upon regaining her health from the difficult childbirth of her illegitimate daughter. She thought she was going to die and didn’t want to depart this world without obtaining Karenin’s forgiveness. When she didn’t end up dying, she wanted to go back to Vronsky, illustrating that her husband’s forgiveness meant little to her in actuality. She only wanted it to soothe her own conscience in the face of death.
Any sympathy I had for Anna after that was purely at a societal level. I condemned Anna personally, but could still bear witness to the unjust double standards that the Russian aristocracy had in regards to male and female adultery. Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, is depicted as a benevolent character, even though he himself is notorious for having affair after affair without remorse.
If there is a weakness in Georgiana’s character, it is her naivety and her desire for attention. Since she does not receive affection from her husband, she seeks it superficially by focusing on the public who adores her. Her dissatisfaction with her home life leaves her susceptible to various addictions, her biggest one being gambling. The stark contrast between her image as a public figure and her private life has been compared to other modern celebrities like Marilyn Monroe.
Both films hold a special place in my heart because they show two strong women who reacted very differently to the limitations placed upon their gender during the 18th and 19th centuries. Georgiana was able to gain much political influence in her own right in the Whig Party while delicately maintaining deference to her husband, while Anna Karenina brazenly defied her husband and society’s expectations of her, though that ultimately lead to her downfall when she could no longer rely on Vronsky to remain faithful to her. It was not society that directly crushed her, it was the sense that her relationship with Vronsky was not longer healthy and thus no longer “worth” the scorn she was enduring from society.
I strongly recommend anyone to go watch these two amazing historical dramas. Both films are available on Netflix. You will not be disappointed.