If Keira Knightley’s detractors claim she can only play one part – that of the spirited, upper-class girl in the corset – then she won’t be converting many with The Duchess. Here the 23-year-old plays Georgiana, a spirited, upper-class girl in a corset whose social-climbing mother (Charlotte Rampling) arranges a marriage for her daughter with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes).
As the Duchess is disappointed, betrayed, quashed and forced to make impossible choices, you know how you should be feeling, but the film seems at one step removed, and the pathos does too
Strong-willed and romantic, Georgiana quickly finds her idealism wavering in the gloomy house of her taciturn, socially awkward husband, who saves what little affection he has for his dogs. An object of fascination to the public and a bastion of style and charisma, the Duchess battles for a fulfilling life in a time where such a wife’s right to happiness, or love, was irrelevant. She must make good on her side of the bargain and produce a son. Nothing else matters.
It is a story of duty, love, sacrifice and passion which brings to mind Madame Bovary or, more deliberately, Charles and Diana. The comparisons to the latter are evident in the Duke’s reserved manner, Georgiana’s ability to charm and captivate everyone except her husband, and the crowded nature of their marriage when the Duke finds a better match elsewhere.
This is the most screen time Knightley has had in a film, something that will no doubt cause her critics to stay away in droves. But all that practice has served her well: Knightley does a good job of bringing to life the passion and personality of the Duchess and she can definitely command the screen. It helps, of course, that she is elegant and beautiful, appearing in an array of stunning outfits in what is a rather sumptuous film, with lots of eating and drinking and dancing.
Despite this, The Duchess is also curiously passionless. This is partly intentional: a product of the atmosphere created by the dry, dour Duke, with Ralph Fiennes doing an incredible job of suppressing any semblance of attractiveness to appear as this odd, repellent character. And this makes for a wonderful contrast with Georgiana’s lover, the future Prime Minister Charles Grey, played by Dominic Cooper (The History Boys) who is charismatic and appealing and has great chemistry with the leading actress.
But although the scenes featuring Knightley and Cooper definitely spark, there is not enough emotional resonance in this story to really pull the viewer in. As the Duchess is disappointed, betrayed, quashed and forced to make impossible choices, you know how you should be feeling, but the film seems at one step removed, and the pathos does too.
Rather than a fault of Knightley’s, it’s more likely that this true story of the Duchess of Devonshire just isn’t remarkable enough and that, when bad things happen, we’d already seen them coming, being by now familiar with the lot of the frustrated nobility.
Yes, the aristocracy are forced into difficult situations by the demands of their position. Yes, women in the eighteenth century had appallingly few freedoms; there are double standards and coded language and brutality behind the beauty, but we saw all this in The Other Boleyn Girl, couched in a more compelling story.
The Duchess is like the Charles and Diana story with a less tragic ending. It's the story of decent people doing what they can in an unforgiving world. Realistic, yes, but it makes for a rather forgettable film.
The Duchess is on general release.