First, The Other Boleyn Girl, now The Duchess. If nothing else, this is a cinematic year committed to sating any and all appetites for quasi-feminist period parables, for bodices and brocade, mistresses and miscarriages, noble husbands with ignoble temperaments, the compassions and competitions of two women sharing the same man’s bed.
At 17, Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) is married off by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) to the wealthy and powerful Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), who at first glance seems to be the biggest drip since Niagara, but is gradually revealed to be something worse still. Georgiana raises her husband’s bastard daughter as her own, and bears him a couple more girls, but succeeds in producing no sons, no sons, no sons, a husbandly complaint that grows more furious with each iteration. Worse still, the Duke takes the one close friend she has, Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), and turns her into a live-in lover. Yet despite such travails, Georgiana becomes a beloved national icon, renowned for her fashion sense and her forthrightness. She also falls in love, and into bed, with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a dashing young Whig politician who would later become Prime Minister, an Earl and, most famously, a tea.
The film, based on Amanda Foreman’s biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is careful not to overplay the echoes of Lady Diana--Georgiana’s real-life descendant--that helped make the book a bestseller. Still, the inevitable question the movie poses is the parallel one: Will she or won’t she? Will she abandon her rank and her children to follow her heart? Or will she remain trapped in her gilded, loveless cage? I’ll leave the answer to the movie itself, and merely point out that even asking the question says more about our time than Georgiana’s.
The elements are all handsomely familiar: The castles and carriages, balls and ball-gowns, and on and on. Knightley can still flash her eyes with anyone, though she has by now so overused the effect that it’s not hard to imagine an on/off switch behind her right ear. As the repressed, upright Duke, Fiennes gives us a glimpse of the horrors that would follow if Butlers Ruled the World. Those in the mood for such period diversions will likely find The Duchess an adequate if unimaginative entertainment. Others may wish to heed the marital advice Georgiana’s mother offers early in the film: “Equip yourself with patience, fortitude, and resignation.”