Screenwriters: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling
Running Time: 110 mins
Familiarity, they say, can breed contempt. Nobody seems to have made that point to Keira Knightley, though, since The Duchess sees the angular actress squeezing back into a corset to portray another timid waif-turned-feisty independent woman. Stifle the groans for a moment, because this lavish costume drama has something to offer a jaded genre.
Partially filmed at Chatsworth House, the venue for one of Knightley's earlier period triumphs Pride & Prejudice, Saul Dibb's The Duchess draws contemporary resonance from historical fact by riffing on the Charles/Diana/Camilla "three people in this marriage" union. The marketing for this film has made those parallels crystal clear, resulting in a trailer that veered towards insulting the audience's intelligence. After all, it shouldn't be difficult to connect those particular dots when the world still carries a morbid fascination with the late Princess of Wales. Thankfully, the final product isn't quite as forceful in reminding you of the eponymous Duchess's place in the Spencer family bloodline.
Eager to maintain her family's status in the upper echelons of English society, Lady Spencer (Rampling) comes to an agreement with William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes) to marry off her daughter Georgiana (Knightley). William is more attentive to his dogs than to his young bride, leaving Georgiana isolated and unloved. Her mother reminds her that once she has given her husband a male heir, their marriage will be solidified. Three daughters later (one of whom William fathered with a maid) and the relationship has disintegrated.
Seeking attention elsewhere, Georgiana fills her time attending political rallies, accumulating gambling debts and cultivating an image as the 18th century's pre-eminent celebrity. A friendship with the troubled and manipulative Bess (Atwell), whose three sons put her on the radar of the philandering William, and a romance with future Prime Minister Charles Grey (Cooper) provide the distant couple with further complications.
Fiennes's understated performance as the emotionally crippled Duke is the movie's highlight. It's a thankless role, one that could have turned into moustache-twirling villainy, yet Fiennes lends his character tragic humour, with the laughs in this ultra-serious film arriving almost exclusively from his toff shtick. His William is awful to his wife and commits the worst act imaginable on her at one point. In spite of that there's pathos in the character when, lost and lonely, he unsuccessfully reaches out to Georgiana. You sense he isn't someone of pure evil, just a product of an idiotic upbringing.
Knightley, Hollywood's cover girl du jour, is the ideal choice for Georgiana - she has become so identified as an actress out of her own time that you can't imagine anyone else filling The Duchess's corset. The discomfort she showed in the Pirates films appears to be behind her, replaced with confidence and self-assuredness. She is at her best firing insolent barbs at William across their vast dining table, pulling into focus the physical and emotional chasm between the pair.
Exploring themes of class, celebrity, infidelity, emotional disparity and, in one charged scene between Knightley and Atwell, lesbianism, The Duchess offers safe, middlebrow intellectualism. Sofia Coppola's recent Marie Antoinette is cut from similar cloth, yet chooses to filter aristocracy through a pop lens. That film was an adventurous failure - The Duchess is restrained, focused and very BBC in its execution, delivering an engaging and relevant relationship drama without compromising the history books.
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