Well before members of the British royal familybecame the tabloid darlings they are today, it was Georgiana, the scandal-plaguedDuchess of Devonshire, who helped pave the way in the late 19th century. And soit seems appropriate that Keira Knightley, the current go-to girl for English periodpieces, has been tabbed to portray her in The Duchess,Saul Dibb's opulent biopic of the trailblazing aristocrat.
Georgiana's travails begin at a young age, when sheis married off at just 16 to William Cavendish, the mild-mannered Duke ofDevonshire (Ralph Fiennes in the very embodiment of upright Britishconservatism) in the opening moments of the film. From the outset their unionis established as a terrible match: naïve Georgiana dreams of romance, whilethe detached duke sees his new wife as little more than a vessel for producinga male heir. Nowhere is this more evident than on their wedding night, whichfeatures one of the least-sexy consummation scenes ever captured on film.
Saddled with the burdens of an aristocraticmarriage but denied its pleasures, Georgiana seeks stimulation elsewhere, splittingher time between the worlds of politics, fashion, and gambling. For herexploits, she gains a certain celebrity status, which she uses to help furtherthe ambitions of childhood friend and future prime minister Charles Grey (a doe-eyedDominic Cooper).
But the public triumphs do little to ease the privatepain of a loveless marriage, made worse by Georgiana's inability to quicklyproduce a son. While her husband is free to pursue various illicit affairs, thepoor duchess is left to suffer alone. And suffer she does. In fact, hermore-or-less constant misery becomes the central theme of the film. Over time,a distinct pattern emerges: 1. Glimmer of hope; 2. Devastating setback; 3.Change wigs; 4. Repeat.
Not that Georgiana doesn't have dalliances of herown. But when she finally opts to consummate her long-simmering romance with Grey(who we are led to believe is the true love of her life, but who comes across aslittle more than a poncy boy-toy) she pays dearly for it when the duke learns of herindiscretions. Threatened with banishment and estrangement from her children, heartbrokenGeorgiana agrees to call off the affair and return to her quasi-imprisonment.
Throughout her trials, Georgiana bears it all with agrace and style, not unlike her much-loved descendant Princess Diana. Indeed,the similarities between the two tragic figures are abundant and unmistakable.And the impeccably dressed Knightley wears it well. In fact, she doesn't appearto age at all, despite having supposedly endured a half dozen or so births andmiscarriages. Nary a wrinkle can be seen on her face, even as the film draws toa close.
The Duchess seems to existprimarily as an Oscar vehicle for Keira Knightley, but the meatier role belongsto Hayley Atwell, who plays Bess Foster. A mentor of sorts to the youngduchess, Bess schools young Georgiana in the realpolitik of English societywhile shrewdly pursuing her own ambitions, the foremost of which isself-preservation in their stubbornly patriarchal world.
The Duchess is a gorgeousfilm, packed to the brim with all the trappings of a big-budget period piece.It's the story that's lacking. Compromise and self-preservation may be of utmostimportance to 19th-century aristocrats, but they don't necessarily make forgreat cinema.
Disagree? Let me know at tleupp@Reelz.com.