I started admiring The Duchess fairly early, when Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley), a seventeen-year-old rich girl, is told she’s to be married to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes).
Her reaction isn’t the tired “I only want to marry for love” response in which modern Hollywood values are transported into the heads of British aristocrats who lived over two hundred years ago. She’s not a clone of a Jane Austen character, either.
Instead, she accepts the arranged marriage as I suspect someone in her position and her time would: she’s a little nervous, but mostly excited to be married to someone so powerful. She knows and accepts that her primary duty will be providing the Duke with a male heir. The trouble comes when that proves harder than everyone expected.
But the film avoids clichéd drama about infertility, too — the problem is not biological but simple bad luck; as the years pass, Georgiana spawns baby girl after baby girl. The Duke, anti-social, stews silently and carries on affairs, while Georgiana quickly becomes a celebrity of her time, known for her extravagant fashions and quick wit. “The only person in Devonshire not in love with the Duchess is the Duke,” becomes the gossip line of the day.
Yes, this is a period drama, a period drama about a fashion icon no less, which means much energy is spent on putting Knightley into over a dozen outfits that each look like they took about four hours to put on. But those of you who think you hate stuffy period pieces (and I include myself in this — please don’t ever make me watch Becoming Jane again) might find comfort in the actual plot. Despite all the period details and costumes and settings, the actual story has a good structure and seems to be more realistic than most.
Well, the realism, I should mention, might be because it’s a true story, based on a book by Amanda Foreman. And I should also mention that the film soon turns into a series of affairs and mistresses and scandals that is well done but all too familiar for this sort of movie. Georgiana makes friends with Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell, making a solid impression), which creates a very complicated triangle with the Duke. Georgiana then takes up the political cause of the good-looking young idealist Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), and we all know where that’s going.
The most interesting character in the movie is the Duke. He could easily be the monster of the piece — if I described all his actions on paper, it would certainly sound like it — but some careful writing and Ralph Fiennes’ impeccable performance makes him the deepest human on screen. He didn’t dislike Georgiana; it’s just that he was not interested in a marriage,
viewed it simply as a necessary step to gain an heir, and did not pretend it was anything more. If the two had produced a boy early on, much of the drama could’ve been avoided. And his stiff silence, upon closer inspection, comes across not as calculating coldness but rather as a painful shyness.
And Keira Knightley — well, you’ve seen her in about eight other period movies, so you know what to expect. The slightly-opened mouth with permanently pursed lips; the knowing flirtations; the eye-widening outrage — it’s all there. But I don’t say that pejoratively. She has the presence to carry the film, with charisma to spare.
It’s a well-done movie; I was drawn into the drama while most other period movies have left me uninvolved or rolling my eyes. If you give The Duchess a shot, you may find many things to like about it.
Movie Grade: B
A vibrant beauty and celebrity of her time is trapped in an unhappy triangle with her husband and his live-in mistress. She falls passionately in love with an ambitious young politician, and the affair causes a bitter conflict with her husband and threatens to erupt into a scandal.