If you’ve seen the trailer for The Duchess, the new historical drama starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, you’ve pretty much seen the movie. With a familiar story of a plucky heroine trapped in a loveless marriage who, embarking on a transformative affair, must choose between propriety and passion, this adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s popular biography shows us nothing we haven’t seen before.
We meet Georgiana at 16, just as her calculating mother (played by Charlotte Rampling) promises her daughter’s hand to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). “He loves me?” Georgiana marvels, noting how she’s barely spoken to him. The young bride’s romantic illusions are promptly dashed, as Georgiana discovers that her husband lavishes considerably more affection on his dogs than on her. She fares better with her new confidante Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) and with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), the aspiring politician (and future prime minister) who becomes her lover. Augmenting the already-fraught dynamics, Bess and the Duke begin a relationship of their own.
It’s a rich scenario and Georgiana an intriguing character; the ebullient duchess’ star quickly outshines her husband’s. But the film, directed by Saul Dibb, is neither particularly compelling nor notably insightful. The script thins Georgiana’s complexity, emphasizing her perfect virtues: in an early scene, she tells two prominent politicians that she can’t abide the idea of freedom for slaves in moderation, since “freedom is an absolute.” And the film only gestures at Georgiana’s more singular qualities. While the movie’s heroine dabbles in political activism, the real duchess was a fervent campaigner for the Whigs. And though admirers frequently praise her sartorial style, none of the outsize ensembles she sports here are unforgettable. Most damagingly, Dibb doesn’t adequately render Georgiana’s devotion to her children; when the duchess is forced to make an unbearable sacrifice, her pain doesn’t resonate. Coming so soon after Marie Antoinette, a more idiosyncratic take on a similar character (Georgiana struggles for years to conceive a male heir), The Duchess feels especially bland.
As the lady herself, Knightley, though engaging, never disappears into her role; even at her character’s emotional nadir, you never forget you’re watching Keira Knightley. She also can’t muster much chemistry with Dominic Cooper, playing Charles Grey, and so their affair plays like something of a device. But Hayley Atwell’s more layered Bess fascinates, never losing our sympathy even when she breaks Georgiana’s heart. And the predictably brilliant Ralph Fiennes, eschewing easy laughs or outright villainy, lends remarkable depth to his repressed duke.
The British costume drama often gets a rough shake from film fans, and understandably so – it’s easy to write these flicks off as a bunch of stuffy, boring movies about stuffy, boring people. But at their vibrant, witty best (A Room with a View, Howards End, Sense and Sensibility), these films are uniquely rewarding, which makes it all the more disappointing that recent efforts (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, Becoming Jane) have dipped so markedly in quality. The Duchess, squandering its fiery real-life heroine and intricate story, joins the latter group. Genre buffs – and we know who we are – will have to keep waiting for a return to form.